Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff Melody Holland, Safe Harbour staff member, spread out the mats used by homeless at the overnight shelter for people under the influence of substances.

Some homeless still sleep outdoors despite the cold snap

Warming centre a busy place in Red Deer

Bone-chilling cold is challenging everyone: the homeless, vehicle owners and a central Alberta community’s water supply.

Many of Red Deer’s homeless have been staying put inside Safe Harbour’s warming centre as brutally cold temperatures persist, but some prefer to sleep outdoors.

Red Deer reached a high of -26 C with a windchill near -37 on Monday after an equally frosty weekend. The temperature was forecast to drop to -35 Monday night with similar lows for the next few nights.

Colleen Markus, Safe Harbour’s program manager, said there are lots of people who sleep outdoors no matter what the temperature is. But over the weekend, the number of homeless inside the warming centre held steady between 85 and 110.

“Typically, they come and go. You might have 40 people at a time,” Markus said Monday.

“With that many people staying, the staff have been doing a really good job pulling together and meeting people’s needs where they can. It’s just hustle, bustle over there. In the midst of it, you’ve got people in trauma and crisis needing to talk.”

Safe Harbour, which runs a 26-space mat shelter for people under the influence of substances, has provided an extra 20 overnight mats inside the warming centre this winter.

She said typically, 12 to 15 of the overflow mats have been used, but on the weekend, the warming centre was at capacity.

When it gets this cold, some homeless are also more likely to stay with friends or family, who will put them up a little longer than usual, she said.

Recent donations of food have been helpful, with more people reluctant to leave the warming centre and venture out to local soup kitchens for meals.

Frozen water pipes at the warming centre, located in ATCO trailers, left the facility without water on Monday. Nearby Superstore donated bottled water.

“It’s cool to see the community pull together when something happens,” said Markus, who also put the call out for gloves.

Rocky Mountain House had water problems due to the cold. Residents were asked to reduce their water consumption over the next three days. Ice blocking the intake lines from the river was reducing the water treatment plant’s overall capacity. The bulk water filling station is also closed until further notice.

The town’s portable steamer was being used to try to thaw the ice accumulations and an additional steam unit has been ordered.

While the homeless have been trying to stay warm and pipes were freezing, drivers have dealt with dead vehicle batteries.

Ryan Lemont, manager of fleet operations for the Alberta Motor Association, said the wait time to get a battery boosted was about three hours Monday morning.

“Boosts account for most of our calls during these extreme weather events. We usually see about 27 per cent of our call volume being boosts. When it’s cold like this, it goes up to 40 per cent,” Lemont said.

He said people should plug in their vehicles for four hours before they are started after a cold night. During the day, vehicles should be driven for 15 minutes every four to eight hours to get engine and fluids back up to normal operating temperature.

“The best way to warm up a vehicle is driving it. Let it run for about 30 seconds to two minutes and then take it out for a drive. That will put a load on the engine and help it run a lot more efficiently, and it will warm up in the process a lot quicker.”

“If it doesn’t reach that optimal operating temperature, what can happen is you can start creating moisture in some weird places inside your engine or inside the gas tank.”

He said people should follow the correct procedures when dealing with a frozen battery.

“Batteries can develop moisture inside. Moisture will freeze and you’ll start to see the battery itself expand. If you were to put power to a frozen battery, you could have detrimental results. Batteries can explode. Do not boost a frozen battery,” Lemont said.

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