An area known as ground zero in Abbotsford under a frozen blanket of snow during an arctic outflow event. (Street Thug Barbers/ Facebook)

An area known as ground zero in Abbotsford under a frozen blanket of snow during an arctic outflow event. (Street Thug Barbers/ Facebook)

Helping homeless survive cold snap in Abbotsford a ‘desperate situation’

Churches and ministries worked overtime to ensure hundreds of people survived arctic outflow

“There are not enough beds for all of these human beings,” Abbotsford Pastor Ward Draper wrote on The 5 and 2 Ministries’ Facebook page on Dec. 23. “Nowhere even remotely close.”

There are anywhere from 450 to 500 people without homes in Abbotsford, and temperatures were about to drop drastically for the Christmas weekend and beyond. All boots were hitting the ground to get extreme weather shelters up and running and to reach out to the hundreds of people without homes in Abbotsford.

In just one single night, they had about 250 people housed and sheltered from the brutal winter storm, at locations around the city like Gateway Reform Church and the Salvation Army. Shelters around the city were filled to the max, and then some, with beds set up in every space available.

Cold weather can be deadly, and there is no way to warm up on the streets.

Snow, sleet, ice rain, and harsh winds all wreak havoc on the body and can destroy precarious housing, such as tents and tarps. Fingers and toes can be lost to frostbite. Lives could also be lost.

“It’s likely that everything you have is already damp,” said the ministry’s executive director and pastor, Jesse Wegenast, who is also the extreme weather response coordinator for the city. “When you are constantly fighting the moisture and then it freezes like that, it chills you right down to the bone.”

While housing that many people in a hurry is a huge feat, Wegenast knows they didn’t get to everyone in need. But in extreme winter weather, he said, people do know where to go.

“Word gets around, and as time wears on and as the cold nights start coming one after another, we see more and more people move into shelters,” he said. They make their way to their spots by night time when the doors open again.

Someone even found Wegenast’s phone number and called him for help with his parents. The couple in their 50s had been living in two collapsed tents on Gladys Avenue for two nights. Wegenast was able to take them to shelter.

That was Christmas Day. The arctic outflow hung over the city for days.

There were other efforts taking place throughout the extreme cold.

Street Thug Barbers is a ministry that serves people living on the streets. As the name implies, they offer haircuts and shaving services to the homeless. But they also provide friendship, food and other necessities in life.

During the extreme weather, Joseph Sikora and others in the group visited “ground zero,” a large camp on Riverside Road (behind Walmart) where many people live in various types of precarious shelter. Every day, he gathered up their propane tanks and took them to be filled. He chronicled the efforts through the group’s Facebook page.

“On my way down to ground zero to hand out sleeping bags, it said -14C on my dash,” Sikora wrote. “Turns out many folks down there had no heat at all as they ran out of propane earlier today.

“I went from camper to camper and I was shocked to see that people were so cold they were crying and huddled under anything they could find to keep warm and stay out of the bone shattering wind. I had been outside at that point for about five minutes and my fingers and toes were freezing. I couldn’t imagine having nowhere warm to go in this freezing temperature, and praying not to die.”

He scouted out more propane heaters to help people try to stay warm. Their efforts were all documented on their Facebook page, along with appeals as the needs piled up, and thank yous as the donations came in.

“[We] worked our way through the truck stop going from camper to camper, handing out food and supplies then under the bridge and through the trails,” Sikora said. That day they handed out homemade turkey soup, sandwiches, hand warmers, socks, hygiene packages, jackets, gloves, water, danishes and the propane tanks.

When he returned the next day, he said everyone was out of propane again.

“They were burning cardboard and garbage to try and stay warm,” he said on the Street Thug Barbers Facebook page. “It’s a desperate situation at ground zero, and simply can’t be ignored or forgotten about. Eight more bottles of propane filled and dropped off to the camps, to help them survive one more night.”

Wegenast said many will have the urge to help but not know what to do. He suggests writing to every elected official and asking them to do what they can to secure more housing stock.

“We have more beds than ever, and more places for people to go than ever,” he said. “But the number one thing I always tell people is write a letter to your MLA, to your MP, to your mayor and councillors, and ask them to do what they can do to secure more housing stock.”

He said it’s the highest impact and just 20 minutes that “anyone with even a modicum of compassion” can do to advocate for the homeless.

And while he says most people will say give to your local organizations, it’s one-on-one connections that can make the difference to someone on the streets.

“Just connect with someone, acknowledge them,” he said. “Keep some granola bars in your car, hand warmers, and you can hand them out when you see people. Let people know you care.”

READ MORE: Staffing challenges from surging COVID-19 cases affecting public services


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Joseph Sikora of the Street Thug Barbers spend the Christmas weekend transporting propane around to homeless camps to help ensure people survived an arctic outflow that stalled over Abbotsford. (Street Thug Barbers/ Facebook)

Joseph Sikora of the Street Thug Barbers spend the Christmas weekend transporting propane around to homeless camps to help ensure people survived an arctic outflow that stalled over Abbotsford. (Street Thug Barbers/ Facebook)