Vancouver’s homeless residents are facing a challenging winter because of predictions of heavy rain, a weather condition that makes life difficult for them.
A wetter winter means that those who rely on shelter services must find a way to stay dry during the daytime hours when access to indoor facilities is limited. According to Environment Canada’s 2018 seasonal forecast, this winter will be warmer and wetter than average.
Bill Briscall, communication manager at RainCity Housing and Support Society, said that feet are vulnerable to poor health in wet weather conditions.
“A damp infection does not get better. It can get worse and … people will need that footwear.”
According to a 2016 study by three University of Dalhousie medical professors, homeless people are more likely to develop athlete’s foot, also known as tinea pedis.
Shelters put a particular focus on footwear, especially clean socks, as they continue to call for donations and clothing during the fall and winter months.
But shelters can only help so much, since many aren’t funded to stay open during the day, so people have to leave in the morning, forcing them to roam around outdoors, where they often end up getting wet day after day.
“They’re in ill-fitting, soaking wet shoes,” said Judy Graves, a former homeless advocate and 2017 candidate for Vancouver city council.
The situation is even worse for people who do not get to an indoor shelter space at night.
Last winter, more than half of the homeless people in Vancouver who weren’t in shelters spent the night outside, making it difficult to stay dry.
Shelters open for a wet winter
This time of year, temporary shelters open around the city.
The city of Vancouver opened 298 overnight shelter beds in November in addition to the approximately 1,200 existing permanent year-round beds. The 2018 homeless count, conducted over a 24-hour period, showed more than 2,000 people reported as homeless, with approximately one-third classified as unsheltered the night of the count.
The Union Gospel Mission will open 20 additional beds, though they expect to see up to 90 people on busy nights, according to spokesman Jeremy Hunka. The mission will use floor mats to try to accommodate more people.
It is common for shelters to reach maximum occupancy within a few days after opening.
RainCity Housing and Support Society opened 80 beds across two Vancouver locations for the winter.
That constant flow of people means that RainCity relies on donations, along with its funding, which largely comes from BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health.
“Every year we need more. So we run out of the clothing, warmer clothing, the blankets that we’re providing, whether it’s for folks that are staying in our shelter or folks that we don’t have room for,” said Briscall. “So that’s an every-year need.”
RainCity Housing provides a nurse outreach program for homeless folk. Outreach nurses will visit the shelter once or twice a week to treat wounds and infections. In an exceptionally wet winter like the one Vancouver is expecting, many homeless people will likely face serious health concerns.
“The nurses would come back to, say, re-bandage something or, if it’s about a matter of keeping that wound or that infection dry, then we’d make sure they have that waterproof gear,” Briscall said.
When the weather gets especially rainy, Vancouver’s homeless population can find refuge in extreme weather response shelters. If there is more than 50 millimeters of rain within a day, the city will open its three extreme weather response shelters.Graphic: Extreme weather response criteria
Nicki McGregor, centre manager of the shelter Directions Youth Services, said that while wet conditions in Vancouver are to be expected, homeless people will still struggle during the winter.
“Wet weather for homeless people is a bit challenging, mostly because they don’t have shelter. So things like wet feet and wet clothing and that sort of thing is not supporting them to stay dry and warm.”