By: EMILY CHAN
Danny L. has been panhandling on Bank Street “on and off for the last fifteen years.” On Friday, he bundled up in three pairs of pants, three shirts, two jackets and gloves, but said he still felt cold as he thanked passing pedestrians through his beard.
Like others in Ottawa who are homeless or rely on panhandling for income, Danny says this winter’s weather has been uncommonly brutal. The polar vortex—the same winter weather system that’s caused power outages and ice storms across the country, and extended down into the southern United States—has Ottawa’s emergency shelter system working hard to keep people like Danny safe and warm.
“Winter did start earlier than normal, and it’s been a prolonged cold,” said Darren Graham, coordinator of outreach services at the Ottawa Salvation Army.
The cold weather poses risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and even death. “In the cold like the extreme cold that we’ve just gone through, we’re very concerned about the health and well-being of people,” said Shirley Roy, media and communications manager at the Ottawa Mission.
The city and local shelters offer a variety of services to help keep people safe and warm during the winter. On Thursday night, the Mission’s 235 beds were full and an additional nine mats were laid out to accommodate for extra people. The shelter also has a “lounge” area that fits up to 60 or 70 people looking for warmth.
“Knowing where we live and the climate we live in…it’s not Toronto, it’s not Victoria. It’s cold enough that people will die outside if left outside,” said Graham. “So there’s always a shelter bed or a warm place or a mat on the floor.”
Graham also coordinates an outreach van that drives around Ottawa every day looking for homeless people who may need help. On days when the weather is colder than -35 degrees Celcius, the van runs on an extended 24-hour schedule. This year, there have already been four 24-hour days.
“It’s a lot for us,” said Graham. “Normally we’d only be doing that four or five times in the entire winter. And it’s depressing to think, but we’re not even halfway through [winter].”
This winter’s early arrival is putting a strain on the city’s resources.
“Supplies are dwindling this year. They’re going faster than in years past because we’ve been spoiled with the weather in years previous,” said Graham. This has forced shelters to be more “selective” about who receives donations, to ensure that items go to the person with the greatest need.
Both Roy and Graham said that homeless people with mental health problems or addictions might not feel comfortable in shelter-situations, which puts them at the greatest risk of cold-related health issues. “People who have mental health problems, if they’re dealing with anxiety, they can’t be in a crowded room. It exasperates them,” said Roy.
Roy said that if they see somebody in distress who doesn’t want to come to a shelter, then the police may be contacted to prevent the person from endangering themselves. “But that doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “We can usually encourage them to come in and warm up for at least a little bit.”
Still, these services are short-term solutions. Graham said that donations are always needed and welcome, but that it’s also important that people pressure their governments to make housing a priority.
Danny agrees. He said that if the city had more affordable housing, he wouldn’t have to spend his days sitting in the Ottawa cold.