Langley’s Gateway of Hope emergency shelter opened its doors for 13 nights in a row last month — from Jan. 10 to 22 — as the mercury dipped and stayed well below the -2 C mark.
When temperatures fell below -12 C and wind chills dropped them even lower, the shelter opened its 30 emergency beds and extended its hours to help ensure that nobody would be, quite literally, left out in the cold.
“Who would believe we’d get to minus 12? That’s absolutely frigid. In this climate people could lose their lives,” said the Salvation Army’s Major James Hagglund.
On one of the worst nights of the cold snap, 17 people used the emergency shelter. Hagglund said that is a record for the Gateway of Hope, now in its third year of operation, and the average is closer to nine people per night.
Still, he said, it is a far cry from the two or three who would take advantage of a warm bed at the shelter during its first winter.
“Each year, people become more familiar, more comfortable, knowing they will be treated with respect,” he said.
While the normal process is to open the emergency shelter at 7 p.m. and have it empty by 7 a.m., in cases of the “extreme, extreme weather” Langley experienced this month, the rules are flexible.
Rather than maintain its regular hours, the shelter allowed users to remain inside until noon, with access to the dining room until 9 a.m. and the lounge, where they could watch TV until 12 p.m.
About half the people who stayed overnight took advantage of the extended hours, said Hagglund.
The decision was made to extend the opening an extra few nights after temperatures climbed out of the sub-zero range because of the slushy wet mess left by the melting snow.
Cold weather isn’t the only criteria for opening the shelter. If it rains for more than four nights in a row, on the fifth night it is opened to allow people to come inside and sleep in a warm, dry bed.
“It’s not only the cold, but the wet that also plays havoc,” said Hagglund.
When freezing cold or soggy weather sets in, the decision to open the emergency shelter is made by a committee, involving staff from the shelter as well as from Stepping Stone Community Services Society and the City of Langley’s bylaw officer.
“From there, we hit the button and word goes out,” said Hagglund.
Word is spread through notices, posted anywhere free meals are served, as well as by police patrols and Langley’s outreach worker, Fraser Holland.
But Hagglund said it’s not only up to these agencies to help the homeless when the weather takes a turn for the worse. The public must get involved, too, he said.
“If people see anyone on the street (they should) bring them themselves or tell them about the shelter. Make sure they get out of the cold.”
The major was quick to point out that the community has been making a big impact through critical donations of sleeping bags and socks, which the shelter distributes.
“That’s the type of support I’ve found in Langley, and it’s appreciated,” he said.
Donations of blankets/sleeping bags and warm socks can be dropped off at the Gateway of Hope at 5787 Langley Bypass.