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5 Winter Dangers Facing the Homeless

email-winterwalkIt’s Monday afternoon. Last night the temperature dipped to minus eight—a minor cold snap. Joseph is sitting on a ledge by the LivingBridge, an urban garden located atop an abandoned rail bridge in downtown Edmonton. He’s shivering slightly but the sun is creeping up over the Brownlee Building, and around us the frost is loosening its grip on the brown perennials.

For most of us these first fingers of frost are a reminder that winter is approaching. We retrieve coats and gloves from the back of closets, suddenly remember to call the garage to swap out summer tires for winter ones, and, perhaps reluctantly, cast our minds forward to the flurry of holiday tasks ahead; not always recalling that with the descent of winter, the problem of homelessness becomes more urgent.

Joseph slept outside last night, but will, if it stays cold, head to Hope Mission for shelter tonight. He pulls at the fabric of his jacket and says he’ll need a heavier coat for the winter, and some gloves.

For homeless people, frostbite is winter’s number one hazard. Most common is frostbite of hands or feet—from superficial to deep. Not unheard of, because of muddled judgment from intoxicants or mental illness, are frostbite-related amputations.

Second is the danger of illness associated with cold weather. The cold lowers immunity and thickens blood, increasing the risk of everything from infection to heart attack.

Thirdly, prolonged exposure causes hypothermia and can result in death. Every year, across Canada, some 80 people die of exposure. The core temperature at which a body expires varies widely from person to person. But in general, men are more prone to freezing than women, as are the lean and well-muscled; but those most prone are the ill-prepared homeless.

Joseph says he sometimes worries about freezing to death. But when I ask him what the worst thing is about being homeless in the winter, he says, “Depression.”

Weather affects our mental state. No surprise. Science bears this out. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-documented form of depression that can strike healthy people. But consider the exponential burden that short and frigid days places upon homelessness people. Physiologically, a cooling core temperature renders enzymes in the brain less effective, causing mental lethargy. For the emotionally tormented, cold can collapse the instinct for self-preservation.

If depression is the fourth danger, the fifth—a clearly related yet distinct danger—is loneliness. Homelessness by definition is the state of being without the support of family. And at no other time of year is the pang of isolation felt more intensely than during the Christmas season.

Hope Mission is preparing for the coming winter months. With your help these dangers can be overcome through the simple act of sharing of a hot nutritious meal—fuel for body, sown hope for the soul.

Thank you for considering our homeless neighbours this winter.