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Vulnerable people need to be included in CBRM emergency plans, says advocate

Tanya Ellsworth had difficulty getting from her tent to the Ally Centre's emergency shelter in downtown Sydney, N.S., after 150 centimetres of snow fell over the weekend. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Tanya Ellsworth had difficulty getting from her tent to the Ally Centre's emergency shelter in downtown Sydney, N.S., after 150 centimetres of snow fell over the weekend. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Tanya Ellsworth was living in a tent when a winter storm walloped Sydney, N.S., with 150 centimetres of snow over the weekend.

She had difficulty, but eventually got to the emergency homeless shelter downtown.

Ellsworth isn't sure what officials could have done to help people living rough during an emergency, but said the long-term solution includes Pallet shelters.

"I don't even know a quick fix," Ellsworth said Thursday outside the emergency shelter at the Ally Centre. "We need homes. We need these Pallets ... here as fast as possible. People are going to start dying and freezing."

Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre, said the latest emergency is another reminder of the need for better planning that includes vulnerable people.

She has been calling for better communication with Cape Breton Regional Municipality's emergency management officials since the COVID pandemic and post-tropical storm Fiona.

Help from a stranger

"Those were all emergency situations where I felt — and I was very vocal about it in many situations — that vulnerable people are really kind of left out of any planning that's happening," Porter said.

"We've not really learned anything."

Ellsworth called in to a CBC radio phone-in show on Monday, saying she was stuck in her tent, unable to get out easily to get food or to go to the emergency shelter.

A listener in the Lunenburg area who was touched by Ellsworth's predicament called and got Ellsworth's number and managed to send her $100.

Ellsworth said she was eventually able to trek three hours through the deep snow with her cat, Bonnie, to a convenience store, where she bought some food and then got a taxi to the shelter.

Without the radio program "that lady that sent me the $100 wouldn't have known to be able to send me that $100 to help me. That saved me," Ellsworth said.

She has been living in a tent since September. Ellsworth said she didn't go to the shelter before the storm, because she was worried about living with others.

However, she has been pleasantly surprised by the experience.

Tanya Ellsworth says she's been pleasantly surprised by the stay she and her cat Bonnie have had at the Ally Centre's emergency shelter in downtown Sydney.
Tanya Ellsworth says she's been pleasantly surprised by the stay she and her cat Bonnie have had at the Ally Centre's emergency shelter in downtown Sydney.

Tanya Ellsworth says she's been pleasantly surprised by the stay she and her cat, Bonnie, have had at the Ally Centre's emergency shelter in downtown Sydney. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"I was scared to death, because I'm not used to being around people, so I was thinking what's it going to be like after sleeping by myself for so long, but coming here, I was actually able to sleep both nights. I was shocked."

Ellsworth is one of 30 people on a list to get a Pallet shelter when those are built sometime in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, she says the Ally Centre has been a lifeline, but she's not sure how long she can stay in the emergency shelter.

"After that it's back to the tent," Ellsworth said. "I still have it there. All my stuff is still there."

 Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre, says she has asked CBRM's mayor and manager of emergency management to include vulnerable people in emergency planning.
Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre, says she has asked CBRM's mayor and manager of emergency management to include vulnerable people in emergency planning.

Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre, says she has asked CBRM's mayor and manager of emergency management to include vulnerable people in emergency planning. (CBC)

Porter said Ellsworth wasn't the only one with problems getting to the shelter. Over a couple of days, it slowly filled to capacity, with one man hitching a ride on a large truck to make the 25-minute drive from North Sydney to the downtown Sydney shelter.

Since this week's storm, Porter has sent emails to CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall and the municipality's manager of emergency management Bruce MacDonald calling for meetings to make better plans for the future.

She said previous requests for planning help have been ignored, yet Halifax and King's County both have vulnerable persons registries and the organizations to go out and find people living rough.

The Ally Centre has its hands full already, running the safe injection site, health clinic and emergency shelter, Porter said.

CBRM needs a vulnerable persons registry and another organization to look after the people on it, she said.

'There's no communication,' says Porter

"Really, we have no idea who's out in tents," Porter said.

"[We have a] pretty good idea here in the Sydney area, but then there's North Sydney and Glace Bay and those places that we're not aware of.

"It is luck and that's kind of where we're lacking. In all honesty, there is no communication between our organization and our emergency measures folks that are out there as to what we can do to help each other in these situations to help people."

On Thursday, CBRM's Bruce MacDonald said he was too busy with the emergency to talk about a vulnerable persons registry.

He did say the municipality does not have the resources to make it work and in past interviews with CBC has said the province should take the lead.

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