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People living with homelessness, disabilities hit hard by weekend storm in Nova Scotia

A woman makes her way on Charlotte Street in Sydney, N.S., after a heavy snowstorm over the weekend.  (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
A woman makes her way on Charlotte Street in Sydney, N.S., after a heavy snowstorm over the weekend. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

While other residents of Cape Breton hunkered down to ride out the weekend snowstorm, Tanya Ellsworth huddled in a tent with her boyfriend and cat with only candles to help keep the cold winds at bay.

Speaking on CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton, Ellsworth said she has been living in a tent on an access road in the woods in Sydney since September.

Ellsworth said during the storm she had to go to the store to get food and it took her three hours to walk to the main road,

"I was going to go down to the Ally Centre, actually, but I have no way to get the cat out to the main road," she said. "I wouldn't leave her, you know."

According to Ellsworth the snow outside her tent was up to her shoulder.

Even if she had wanted to stay in a municipal shelter during the storm it may not have been possible.

Most places in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality normally used for shelters were not accessible because of the heavy snowfall and there were no volunteers to help people, Bruce MacDonald, CBRM's manager of emergency management, told Information Morning Cape Breton.

Isolated by storm

Like many vulnerable people, the historic storm presented Ellsworth with challenges that many other people do not face during severe weather events.

It's a situation that Stephen Wilsack saw firsthand this during the storm,

Wilsack is co-founder of Sleep On It, which provides supplies to people living in tents. He spent the weekend at the tent encampment at Grand Parade in Halifax.

Matthew Grant and Stephen Wilsack are handing out mattress pads and other supplies at tent encampments around Halifax through a project they've dubbed Sleep On It.
Matthew Grant and Stephen Wilsack are handing out mattress pads and other supplies at tent encampments around Halifax through a project they've dubbed Sleep On It.

Matthew Grant, left, and Stephen Wilsack help people at tent encampments around Halifax through a project they've dubbed Sleep On It. (Taryn Grant/CBC)

Residents of the encampment were cold and frustrated during the storm, Wilsack told CBC Radio's As it Happens.

He said many people were without medicine, some were without food and many had a tough time getting to the outhouses during the storm.

Emotional distress

Wilsack said some people at the encampment were suffering extreme emotional distress over the weekend.

"We're here, and we want to make sure that people from Nova Scotia that are vulnerable are protected," Wilsack said.

"But it wears on you, and we just need help. And we all need help in order to make this go away."

People who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity still need assistance during severe weather events, said Michelle Porter, the co-founder of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission. The organization operates centres in Halifax, Bridgewater, Sackville and Truro, with plans to open another in North Sydney by summer.

Michelle Porter is the CEO of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, an organization she co-founded with her husband
Michelle Porter is the CEO of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, an organization she co-founded with her husband

Michelle Porter is the CEO of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, an organization she co-founded with her husband (Michelle Porter)

Porter said on Saturday, in the midst of the storm, dozens of  people showed up at the mission's Cunard Street centre in Halifax for a hot meal.

"It did surprise me that 30 people showed up for lunch on Saturday at Souls Harbour," Porter said. "It just shows you  that the needs are are very prevalent."

The Souls Harbour warming centre in Bridgewater was also operating during the storm, she said.

Porter said her organization doesn't have an outreach program that could navigate the streets during the storm. She said that means a lot of people would have gone hungry for up to two days.

HRM registry for vulnerable residents

Following post-tropical storm Fiona, the Halifax Regional Municipality set up the voluntary vulnerable persons registry.

The registry collects information from people in the community to help support those with disabilities, mobility problems, cognitive impairment or mental illnesses during extreme weather and other crises.

Gerry Post,  a community advocate for people with disabilities, speaks with CBC on March 31, 2021.
Gerry Post, a community advocate for people with disabilities, speaks with CBC on March 31, 2021.

Gerry Post, a community advocate for people with disabilities, pictured in a 2021 file photo. (CBC)

Gerry Post, an accessibility advocate, told Mainstreet Nova Scotia on Monday this was the first major test of the registry and he was amazed by how many messages he received during the storm checking on his welfare.

Post, who uses a wheelchair, said he has been meeting with provincial officials to encourage other municipalities to get  registry systems.

"I would like to see sort of common standards on this so that there can be interoperability between the various municipalities," Post said.

"So that we have a whole federation of these municipal systems because they must be operated locally, but  they should be linked together in case there is a massive emergency."

Speaking at a Monday news conference, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said municipalities and communities have a better understanding about residents' needs.

Houston said friends and neighbours looking out for each other were the province's "first line of defence" during times of crisis.

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