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Plenty of space for Metro homeless to escape cold despite 'confusion'

There's plenty of room in extreme weather shelters for the homeless across Metro Vancouver despite reports of some full shelters in Vancouver.

Coordinator James Pratt sought to counter what he called "confusion" Monday about the different types of shelter available after City of Vancouver Mayor Gregor  Robertson warned Vancouver's four emergency winter shelters were full and had turned away hundreds of people since early December.

The shelters in question there are seasonal winter shelters and are different from the additional extreme weather beds that are activated as needed in response to heavier demand in colder conditions.

"There have been zero turnaways from extreme weather sites this season for any reason and plenty of space is available," said Pratt, coordinator of the Metro Vancouver Extreme Weather Response Program with the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy.

The extreme beds opened again with the recent drop in temperatures and can be simply mats pulled out at existing shelters or additional space in churches or community centres.

Pratt said they act as overflow for the year-round or winter seasonal shelters and typically aren't open 24 hours.

Nearly two-thirds of the extreme bed use so far has been in Surrey, which he said accounts for 1,000 out of 1,600 nightly stays across the region to date.

"That shows there's a real need there," he said.

Metro Vancouver has a total of 1,600 shelter beds – 1,295 year-round ones plus 304 seasonal ones that run all winter and then up to 650 extra spaces that can be opened as extreme weather beds.

As of Monday, Pratt said there were currently 17 extreme weather sites open across

the region, with space for 410 people in them.

He expected most of the extreme beds won't be needed.

"If we got close to filling those up we would have another 240 spaces to expand into."

The extreme weather beds in the Tri Cities have not yet had to open, he said, because there's still unused room at existing shelters.

But extreme beds are open in the North Shore, New West, Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey, Langley and White Rock.

Pratt said area shelters welcome donations of cash or clothing. A directory of local shelters with contact information can be found online at www.gvss.ca.

Vancouver's four winter shelters are low barrier, allowing residents to bring pets and shopping carts inside.

Robertson called the high rates of use there evidence of the need for more new supportive housing and other initiatives to end street homelessness.

More than 2,600 people were counted as homeless across Metro Vancouver in 2011, more than half of them in shelters.

That year's regional homeless count found the number of unsheltered street homeless was way down from 2008 – a shift credited to the province's housing strategy.

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