On cold winter nights, it’s not uncommon for there to be more people seeking shelter in Waterloo Region than available beds.

People working in the shelter system say this winter seems to have more people looking for help than usual.

“We are seeing unprecedented numbers of people coming in for service at our shelter,” says Christine Stevanus, the director of housing at House of Friendship.

House of Friendship has 39 shelter beds, plus 12 more for overflow. Stevanus says they’ve been “beyond full” every night since November, and still people have been showing up looking for space – in numbers not seen in any other year.

Waterloo Region’s shelters work together to ensure all available beds are utilized on any given night. When all beds are full, people are put up in motels.

“If you’re seeing a shelter overwhelmed with volume, chances are the entire system is overwhelmed,” says Lynn Perry of the Cambridge Shelter Corporation, which runs The Bridges shelter. The Bridges normally has space for 78 people, but took in 92 Tuesday night.

With temperatures regularly dipping down near the -20 C mark this week, weather is likely one factor accounting for the increase. Shelter officials say it’s likely the weather is only unmasking a larger issue with homelessness, as people who might otherwise have made space for themselves outdoors find themselves too cold to stick with those spaces.

“People don’t become homeless due to the cold weather,” Stebanus says.

“I think there are larger factors at play.”

Those factors, Stebanus says, could include affordable housing challenges, a low rental vacancy rate, a lack of supports for people with mental health, addiction and development issues, and too few jobs for people at risk of homelessness.

Perry says many of the people seen in the shelter system don’t have family or community connections to fall back on.

She agrees that affordable housing is one of the biggest factors in the high turnout at shelters, even as shelter personnel work with clients to try and find more stable forms of housing.

“The options simply aren’t there,” she says.

With reporting by Heather Senoran