Dec. 20, 2004. 09:37 AM

Shelters fill up as chill grips city
100 extra beds made available
Extreme cold weather alert in effect

Angelo Vinci helps serve a roast beef dinner to homeless people yesterday at his brother’s King St. E. eatery, Biagio’s Ristorante. “It’s fantastic,” said one happy man.



It was minus 22C and Jim Snow wouldn't leave the blue tarp shelter — his home — in a field along the Don Valley Parkway.


"Nope. Won't go," he told the Street Help workers pleading with him to come inside last night.


"I know," Snow said. "I'm freezing. I'm freezing."


Had he come with them, and so many wouldn't on the first night of an extreme cold weather alert — the season's first — they would have had to scramble to find a place.


All spaces in the Out of the Cold program were full. The city's newest shelter, at 110 Edward St., which opened Thursday by referral only with dormitories and beds still under construction, took in people on an emergency basis and let them sleep on the floor.


The Maxwell Meighan Centre on Sherbourne St. was the only other place taking people in last night. And as temperatures dropped, those beds were filling up quickly.


Earlier in the day, about 300 of the city's homeless were able to escape the deep freeze of the streets for a warm restaurant setting for a few hours in the afternoon. At Biagio's on King St. E., owner Biagio Vinci opened his doors for the restaurant's seventh annual Sunday Christmas Brunch for the homeless.


Word spread quickly on the frigid streets, and by 2 p.m. Vinci, his family and friends and restaurant staff had served more than 250 meals of minestrone, roast beef, mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables with an English trifle dessert.


"It's fantastic — best meal I've had in a long time," said John Sterjovski, who didn't have a rooming house lined up for the night and was planning to "go from one place to another, just trying to keep warm."


Vinci was not the only one throwing open his doors. Out of the Cold, a coalition set up to open public facilities like churches and synagogues to help the homeless, opened three temporary shelters yesterday afternoon. All were filled last night. Drop-in centres and other soup kitchens were also preparing for a very busy evening.


The forecast high of minus 18C for the city yesterday prompted Toronto's Hostel Services Unit to declare the extreme cold weather alert, swinging the city's emergency shelter plans into action.


The night's low of minus 22C would make yesterday the second-coldest Dec. 19 on record, Environment Canada said, behind a minus 24C day in 1942.


More than 100 extra beds were made ready at shelters across the city, and extra outreach vans were patrolling the streets, trying to persuade as many as possible to come in out of the cold.


At minus 36C, the expected low for last night with the wind chill factored in, exposed skin can freeze in about 12 minutes, said Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips.


"It's very dangerous for those out on the street," he said. "For them, tonight, survival could depend on finding that warm grate or at least some place to keep themselves out of the wind."


With a high of minus 13C forecast for today, Hostel Services will wait until this morning to decide whether to extend the alert. Temperatures are expected to rise back above freezing tomorrow.


Some people in East York were forced to face the weather without electricity for nearly four hours yesterday, as a broken insulator cut power in the area at about 8 a.m., said Thelma Hatzis, a spokesperson for Toronto Hydro.


Meanwhile, at 110 Edward St., the new city-provided resource for those in danger of being left on the cold streets, the staff of six worked to find beds at other shelters around the city. By nightfall, as beds around the city filled up, the shelter allowed some to stay even though there were no beds ready. About 80 beds, still being put together yesterday, should be open before Christmas.


The shelter is the first part of a broader homeless plan that Mayor David Miller has said will be introduced in January


"We have about 100 extreme weather beds that are added to the system at these times of year, and we have called a cold alert for today so those beds will be added on for tonight," said Maura Lawless, manager of hostel operations for the city.


"We've been working pretty closely with the outreach vans since we opened the Edward facility," she said.


with files from Jen Gerson