SASKATOON -- As Saskatoon’s plunge into the deep freeze continues, community support programs are working overtime, helping the city’s most vulnerable stay safe and warm.

“I know right now we have some teams that are starting to burn out but we’re doing the best we can to get through to Sunday and when this is over, we’ll breathe a very deep sigh of relief,” said Lyn Brown, executive director with Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP).

This past weekend, Brown said, the organization relocated 60 people in Saskatoon to hotel rooms and other shelters in the city, when temperatures plummeted as low as -41 C.

Those 60 success stories come from months of coordinating social service resources, Brown said. Many of the people first made contact with the downtown Community Support Program, a team of social support who patrol the Downtown, Riversdale and Broadway areas.

While SHIP has relied on 18 hotel rooms funded through SHIP and the Ministry of Social Services, even the availability of these units is shrinking as the need for them increases.

“Right now we have limited capacity,” Brown said. “We may talk to another hotel to see if there’s an opportunity for more hotel rooms available for us or we’ll have to get creative and see where we can go from there.”

On the front lines of the polar vortex, Rob Garrison, supervisor of the Community Support Program, said the deep freeze has forced his members to play a more proactive role, helping those without a place to find safe shelter. It’s something Garrison said it’s been more difficult because of the pandemic.

“When the cold weather kicks in it’s a whole different ball game,” Garrison said. “We need to make sure people have a plan for the night. We try to connect them with warm-up shelters and make sure they have a plan.”

His members have shared encounters with some people found in rough shape, he said.

“A young man was sleeping under a truck in a parking lot just off of 20th Street and business owners were concerned, he had been there all night sleeping under a truck,” Garrison said.

While they were able to help the man, eventually finding him a spot with the Salvation Army and then The Lighthouse, Garrison said in another instance community officers were alerted about two people huddled inside a recycling bin trying to get away from the cold.

“It’s pretty sad when you come across something like that. It’s eye-opening,” he said. “People often seek refuge in recycling bins because they wrap themselves up in cardboard.”

Over the weekend Delano Kennedy, executive director of the Okihtcitawak Patrol Group (OCP) did some rounds through Pleasant Hill and Riversdale, handing out snacks, blankets, gloves and toques as well as winter jackets.

While Kennedy and OCP don’t usually patrol on weekends, the forecast forced them to act quickly to mobilize on one of the coldest days of 2021.

“There was about three teams driving around the neighbourhoods, handing people donations as well as letting them know about the warm-up locations,” Kennedy said.

Brown is considering changes to the cold weather strategy – perhaps changing the threshold to -25 C from -30 C.

Adding to the inventory of available rooms in hotels and shelters is also a challenge every winter when temperatures drop.

“Long term it’s more about coordination. We do have shelters, warm-up locations, the overnights are the worst because the warm-up locations are open during the day until 9 p.m. at night,” she said.

“The key is the overnight outreach, to have people on the street and that access to the hotels. The hotels are there and they have capacity so we can work with them to coordinate.”

According to Medavie Health Services West, since Feb. 6, paramedics treated nine patients for exposure to the cold. Spokesperson Troy Davies said patients had initial signs of hypothermia and a couple had frostbite.