‘Frustrating and deadly’: How the extreme cold is hitting Canada’s homeless

Click to play video: 'Extreme cold prompts urgency for homeless protections in ‘deadly’ conditions'
Extreme cold prompts urgency for homeless protections in ‘deadly’ conditions
Many Canadians are bundling up for warmth during this week’s cold snap. But with unsafe conditions in shelters and encampments, many experiencing homelessness have nowhere to go but outside. Advocates say urgent action is needed, but is enough being done to get there? Naomi Barghiel reports – Jan 18, 2024

Every day outreach worker Greg Cook tries to connect dozens of homeless Torontonians with one of the city’s busy shelters, mostly, he says, without success.

Those efforts become even more difficult during weeks of freezing cold temperatures, when demand is highest but access to resources remains low.

Sometimes, Cook says the people he is trying to help die before they find a safe place to stay.

“It is definitely hard at times. Frankly, one of the things I find hardest, having done this for quite a while, is to see kind of big picture how much things are getting worse every year. It just feels bleak,” said Cook, who works for Sanctuary Toronto and on the steering committee for the Shelter and Housing Justice Network.

Toronto has one of the largest shelter systems in the country, and yet shelters turned away almost 200 people every night due to a lack of capacity in December, according to data from the city’s Shelter System Requests for Referral page.

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Even though demand for a shelter spot is through the roof, Cook says many will still choose to stay out in the cold to avoid overcrowding and violence that has become the norm in many shelters.

With most warming centres closed after a certain hour of the day as well, many end up seeking warmth wherever they can, such as in buses, subways and cafes.

Some in encampments, outside of Toronto as well, are using space heaters and propane tanks to stay alive despite safety risks. One man was found dead in a tent at a homeless encampment in Edmonton earlier this month following a propane tank explosion. Soon after, the city declared a housing and homelessness emergency.

Toronto advocates and officials also sounded the alarm by declaring a homeless emergency last winter, but Cook says even that didn’t spark much action.

“It’s frustrating and frankly deadly for people who are outside,” said Cook.

Click to play video: 'Cold snap heats up concerns about homelessness in Peterborough'
Cold snap heats up concerns about homelessness in Peterborough

This year, Toronto added a number of action items to its Winter Services Plan that includes 180 new spaces in the shelter system. But it still expects demand to rise throughout the winter season due to insufficient affordable housing, the increasing cost of living and low wages.

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Cook says these factors are all too real, and have had grave consequences for the homeless population.

“I’ve been an outreach worker for almost 15 years (and) I see the waitlist for social housing just increase exponentially every year. Now, in a place like Toronto, the wait is 10 years, and many people I know die in that interim,” he said. “So when somebody says ‘I need housing, I’m on disability pension, I’m only able to get a minimum wage job,’… for many people, it’s a death sentence.”

Click to play video: 'High demand for extreme weather shelters in B.C.'
High demand for extreme weather shelters in B.C.

Extreme cold warnings have been issued in many parts of the country this past week. Most provinces issue a warning when the temperature or wind chill is expected to reach -30 degrees Celsius for at least two hours.

The territories are not exempt from the country’s homelessness crisis either, and have already issued extreme cold weather alerts this winter for temperatures reaching -50 degrees.

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Research led by St. Michael’s Hospital in 2019 found that while extreme cold temperatures increase risk of hypothermia, most cases of severe injury and death related to the cold occur in moderate winter weather, which is much more common.

Homelessness solutions start with 'dignity': housing watchdog

Toronto is only one example of a problem that spans the nation.

According to data from Statistics Canada in 2021, over one in 10 Canadians said they have experienced some form of homelessness in their life. Between 25,000 and 35,000 are homeless on any given night in Canada.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a problem already slipping from the country’s grasp, leading to higher unemployment, inadequate wages, deteriorating housing affordability and ultimately more homelessness.

The federal government launched a National Housing Strategy in 2017, which is a 10-year, $72-billion plan promising to end homelessness in Canada by 2030.

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However, multiple advocates and leaders have criticized it for its lack of concrete actions.

One of those critics is Ottawa’s first federal housing advocate, Marie-Josée Houle.

She says certain weather conditions like this week’s extreme cold across the country expose systemic problems that exist year-round.

Click to play video: 'Why Canada’s in a cold snap despite El Niño'
Why Canada’s in a cold snap despite El Niño

Houle has been working on a series of recommendations for the federal government that are slated for release in February. They largely consist of action that treat Canada’s homeless population with dignity, beginning with encampments and addressing barriers within shelters.

“The fact that we have encampments in Canada means it’s just a physical manifestation of exactly how broken our housing and homelessness system is,” said Houle. “It not only is a violation of people’s human right to housing, but a lot of other human rights, including security and dignity of the person.”

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Houle says she understands adequate housing isn’t built overnight, but until homes become available, governments have the obligation to work directly with people in encampments to meet their needs and ensure their safety.

Raiding encampments and forceful encampment evictions achieve the opposite outcome of what Houle is advocating for. She says police’s “militaristic approach” and “declaration of war” on people in encampments “is not working.”

Click to play video: 'Why do so many homeless resist going to shelters in Edmonton?'
Why do so many homeless resist going to shelters in Edmonton?

Last week, Edmonton clean-up crews and officers dismantled seven out of eight of its homeless encampments deemed high risk by the city and police. Personnel at the eighth encampment were met with resistance from residents and advocates, which led to multiple charges and arrests for assault.

Police said they are aware that dismantling has often led to displacement, but they are working on ways to “incentivize people to look elsewhere.”

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Except, many still end up out in the cold. The conditions in shelters across the country aren’t much better. Houle says each municipality has different issues but the lack of safety in shelters is a key, universal factor.

Reports from The Canadian Press in 2019 found that the number of violent incidents in Toronto shelters alone had more than tripled during the pandemic, partially driving an increase of outdoor encampments.

“There are reasons why people are choosing to sleep out in the cold, to be subject to police brutality, to harassment by the public, by bylaw officers. The risk of sexual violence, being robbed, and of physical violence also happens in shelters,” Houle said.

“The solution to encampments isn’t shelters, it’s homes.”

While municipalities have largely been saddled with the complex issue of encampments, Houle says it’s time that the federal government takes leadership.

“(Municipal councils) are not equipped to deal with encampments appropriately and they need support. You need leadership on this… which has to come from the federal government because it’s a national issue,” she said.

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