Homeless in the Winter

Here’s a feature article that was just published in the Winter issue of Spacing magazine.


“All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” — Philip Johnson

There’s a brown City of Toronto bench in the centre of Allan Gardens that I walk by every day. In the summer, it holds shade in the late afternoon with grey squirrels darting between its legs. Occasionally, when I pass by on my way home from work, I see homeless men sitting there. In the winter, the bench is blanketed in a thin crust of snow. I don’t tend to see the homeless men again until the spring melting.

“Every winter there’s this huge risk that happens,” says Cathy Crowe, Toronto street nurse and co-founder of Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She’s talking about how, when the mercury drops, the city’s homeless turn to innate survival tactics. Many take to the woods in the Don Valley, some turn to abandoned cars or buildings, and others look for open grates and dark bridges. People get creative, explains Dion Oxford, director of the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter, because they are bracing for survival. Park benches and doorway stoops no longer suffice in the eye of a snowstorm. It’s an annual quandary for the city’s outdoor homeless population.

On a cool November day in 2001, now-author Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall tossed aside his middle-class lifestyle and went homeless. Living with about 30 others, Bishop-Stall shacked up in Toronto’s infamous Tent City. That’s where he lived for the next year, often struggling to survive the throes of winter.

“Almost more dangerous in the winter than hypothermia or frost bite is the damage people do to themselves trying to stay warm,” he recalls. Accidentally lighting themselves afire. Accidental asphyxiation from gas heaters and kerosene lanterns in closed-off shacks. And, more commonly, drinking toxic products to warm their insides. “Almost a bigger danger than the cold itself is that of trying to avoid it.”

It’s very difficult to get any sleep without being completely inebriated.

Then head to a shelter, many wail, albeit pleading ignorance. Problem is shelters — emergency or not — carry negative connotations for homeless people, Oxford concedes. They can be overcrowded and unsanitary. People steal and fight. And, more severely, the chances of picking up bed bugs or tuberculosis skyrockets. Some shelters prohibit you from bringing pets and many don’t allow couples (shelters are often men or women only).

Scores of people will do anything to stay out of the temporary residences and may lose their lives on the streets because the temperature dropped too much, says Crowe. And although numerous individuals do lose their lives on the streets in the winter, there are no hard numbers recorded, only the odd newspaper brief. According to Toronto’s Street Needs Assessment report in 2009, there’s an estimated outdoor homeless population of 400, although this is a conservative number according to outreach workers. Factoring in those that are in shelters, treatment, or transitional homes, the number dances around the 5,000 mark.

When the temperature drops below -15˚, the City issues emergency Extreme Cold Weather Alerts. In 2008 there were 12 alerts; in 2009 there were four. When an alert is made, many of the shelters open their doors with an additional total of 171 “beds” — which is a misnomer, as they tend to be blue mats on floors — and lax their rules. These, like the Out of the Cold winter shelters, are a “far cry from a safe place,” Bishop-Stall notes. “You have dozens of people within inches of each other just coughing on each other.” The Out of the Cold program, which is run mainly by faith-based volunteers and churches, has a scheduled shelter set in place for every day of the week running from late November to the end of March. These are typically basement floors with blue mats where it’s “very difficult to get any sleep without being completely inebriated,” says Bishop-Stall. “They’re very rough places.”

For Crowe, these winter shelters are a recipe for worsening people’s mental health and ammunition for disease outbreak. “It’s a migration of disease,” she says, because you have pools of people crossing the city every day to the next location, all sleeping in tight proximity throughout the winter months.

The City wants to house its outdoor homeless population. With its Streets to Homes initiative, it aims to bring people off the streets and into transitional housing. In four years, some 2,400 people have received the long-term assistance. And although it’s commendable, it’s not for everyone, says Jody Steinhauer of Project Winter Survival. Many need vast support systems for mental health and addiction, not simply housing. But according to Crowe and Steinhauer, the City has axed its funding to street-level outreach groups and poured its resources behind the housing. And it has been a swift shift to transitional housing. They leave the emergency shelters up to the faith-based organizations like Out of the Cold and Project Winter Survival to fund the beds and the sleeping bags. “The City of Toronto and the Province have gotten off the hook,” says Crowe.

Asked if she would like to add anything, Steinhauer doesn’t miss a beat. However you chop it up, she says, “you are not to judge. It could be you one day. And don’t forget, in the winter, those benches are covered in snow.”


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