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Heartbreaking images show Vancouver's homeless suffering during snowstorm

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An advocate on the Downtown Eastside is sharing photos of people suffering on snow-covered streets, saying the city is not doing enough to help homeless people and warning of potentially deadly consequences.

Sarah Blyth-Gerzak shared a series of images Wednesday morning, taken as she walked the streets to show that people are still being left alone and vulnerable to the extreme winter weather despite Vancouver having activated shelters and warming centres.

"You can say everything that you want, but really what it comes down to is, I think, people really only believe what they can actually see with their eyes. So it's important to document things with photos or video just to show this is what's actually happening."

"I can tell you right now, with what's happening outside, there's no way that this is not going to be reflected in deaths," she added.

Mayor Ken Sim posted to social media as a storm forecast to bring up to 20 centimetres of snow was set to descend on the South Coast, sharing a list of locations in the city that offer some reprieve from the harsh conditions.

"If you find yourself without shelter, we've opened additional spaces and warming centers. Your safety is our top priority – please come inside and stay warm," he wrote.

That, Blyth-Gerzak says, is nowhere near good enough. The extreme weather shelters don’t allow people to stay there during the day and have capacity limits, the warming centres are similarly almost exclusively open overnight.

"I've been talking to people over the past couple of days about their experiences and they're having trouble getting into shelters, they're going to shelters and they're stuck in the lineups, they're full, they go from place to place and they're ending up walking around in the snow," she said.

"People should have a place to go to be warm all day until we find other solutions. There is a bunch of housing coming online, which is great. But in the meantime, we can't have people lying around outside in the snow and dying."

In a statement, the City of Vancouver noted that homeless people are welcome to spend days in "daytime warming locations" – libraries, recreation centres and community centres – during regular operating hours.

But similarly to schools, those facilities can be impacted by extreme weather. One community centre was closed Wednesday due to the snow, and two library locations – including the central branch – closed early.

The city also noted that two additional extreme weather shelters have opened since the start of the cold snap, and one additional warming centre is being opened Wednesday evening.

"The City of Vancouver is currently offering more capacity this year than any year prior and we continue to work on more options," the statement continued.

The city did not answer a CTV News question about whether additional homeless outreach teams were being deployed during the storm, but said the Carnegie Outreach Team, which normally operates Monday to Friday, was "out daily connecting with individuals sheltering outside."

Non-profits and individuals have stepped up their outreach – bringing people inside when it's possible and handing out sleeping bags, clothing, blankets and hand warmers when it's not – and Blyth-Gerzak says she wants to see more "boots on the ground" from the city instead of posts to social media and press releases.

"They should be driving trucks around. They should be looking for people in alleys and on the street, making sure that they're not under a pile of snow," she said.

"It's just not enough to tell people to get themselves inside. It's just not enough."

A recent report from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control says cases of hypothermia and frostbite among people who are homeless have been "increasing in all regional health authorities over the past decade, and especially the past two years."

Being exposed to cold temperatures and snowy or wet conditions for prolonged periods of time is the main risk factor for hypothermia and other cold-related injuries, the BCCDC says, adding that other risk factors render people more vulnerable, such as substance use, disability, and diseases like diabetes.

"(People experiencing homelessness) are often coping with more than one of these risk factors, further compounded by prevalent issues such as malnourishment and inadequate winter clothing, and as a result (they) are often most at-risk of death or injury during cold weather," the report says.

The 2023 Metro Vancouver homeless count found 4,821 people who had no place to live in the region – a 32 per cent increase since 2020. The number of people "unsheltered" and living on the streets, in a vehicle, in a tent or other makeshift structure rose from 1,029 to 1,461. The Homelessness Services Association of B.C. said the totals in its report represented an "absolute minimum number of people" who were homeless in the region on the day of the count.

Deaths among British Columbians experiencing homelessness have risen dramatically in recent years, a report published last year by the BC Coroners Service revealed.

At least 342 homeless people died in 2022. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual average was 143 deaths. For the past two years, the average count more than doubled to 305.

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