Killer cold: Toronto winters take a toll on the homeless

To freeze or not to freeze: is this a question Toronto’s homeless people should have to ask themselves?

Earlier this month, three homeless men died after staying outside in ferociously cold weather. One of them eventually found shelter in the Peter Street walk-in, but died shortly after.

In case of an extreme cold weather alert, the city offers additional shelter spaces available for men and women, opens two 24-hour drop-in centres, increases street outreach and transportation services and gives away TTC tokens.

“Three homeless deaths are not a good sign that we are addressing the problem satisfactorily”

winter TO

Mayor John Tory says he will review Toronto’s shelter system in March. (Courtesy Danielle Scott, Flickr)

Despite all these services, most shelters exceed their 90 per cent occupancy targets — but still take more people in with little room to spare. Data from the City of Toronto’s website shows the average occupancy rate of facilities last weekend at 92 per cent. The highest rates were registered from co-ed shelters, which reached 99 per cent occupancy, and family shelters at 98 per cent.

Although Toronto’s homeless are unlikely to be turned away and pushed into the cold, with these figures in mind, the question remains: are we walking on the razor’s edge?

And the truth is, we are.

Mayor John Tory, who visited the crowded shelters a couple weeks ago, said staff are working to offer extra spaces in existing shelters and programs. However, he didn’t specify how many extra spots would be offered or where they would find the space to do so.

Crowded shelters are just one issue. Another is determining how cold is too cold. The city usually releases an extreme cold weather alert when the temperature is expected to drop below -15 C. On two separate occasions earlier this month when homeless men were found dead, the extreme cold weather alert had not been issued. Both times, the temperatures dipped to almost -15 C with a -20 C wind chill.

While the city considers wind chill forecasts, health officials said there are no established guidelines on “what wind chill value would trigger an extreme cold weather alert,” according to Toronto’s website.

Tory opened doors to warming shelters on a day that only reached -14 C, in the wake of these deaths.

It’s impossible to say if careful consideration of these weather conditions would have saved a life, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

There are only two agencies that track deaths of homeless people in Toronto: Toronto’s Shelter Administration, which keeps track of its clients’ deaths, and the Homeless Memorial project run by the Church of Holy Trinity. Each provides different data — the first recorded 30 deaths last year, while the second recorded 14. Neither source could provide accurate statistics of the number and causes of deaths.

But Trinity Church’s incumbent minister Sherman Hesselgrave, said that three deaths in the first weeks of the year is a concerning number.

“Three homeless deaths are not a good sign that we are addressing the problem satisfactorily,” he said.

While Tory says he plans to review the shelter system in March, Toronto’s homeless population may not be able to last that long.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Jan.  28, 2015.

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