I grew up in Northern Ontario. I understand winter cold. I know first hand the piercing pain of a northern wind sweeping across Lake Superior and taking the breath from you. My brother and I used to have to shovel our driveway and we would describe the degree of cold outside of whether or not snot would freeze when you breathed in deep. And just to make my cold weather credentials (and hoser-esque Canadiana) even more well known, we heated our house with wood, so I know what it is like to be in the middle of the night in a frozen abode until more logs got on the fire. I hate the cold. I know winter is a heartless bastard. I wish winter did not happen, and the more I travel to places like Florida, Southern California and Hawai’i, the more I realize how smart people are for living there.
So knowing the pain of cold, why is it that I am not a huge fan of winter shelter? In a nutshell, it is because people are making an emotional decision on how to address homelessness, not one driven by data. I have felt this way in my reading and research for the past decade or so. Then two events over the past week or so have solidified my opinion further.
In one instance, I was in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario for their community forum on homelessness on September 25, 2015. They presented data on the winter response to homelessness historically and over the past year as they have phased out their winter response. What the data clearly showed is that the regular shelter system could absorb the impacts of a winter shelter, and that many of the people that had been using the winter shelter were merely moving from the “regular” shelter to the winter shelter – it was not a huge population of otherwise unsheltered people making use of the winter shelter. Then on September 28, 2015 I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. O’Connell speak again in New Hampshire where he presented even more data that has me convinced now more than ever before that the push to enhance shelter options in the winter is not going to do the things that people thinks it does. What kills people that live outdoors in places like northern states and Canada isn’t hypothermia. Even when we have experienced things like the polar vortex in recent years, extreme cold weather has injured people, but it does not kill them on mass. Instead, what is killing people living outside on mass are things like cancer and heart disease. To paraphrase Dr. O’Connell and his research, these are the things brought about from years of hard living, not from being exposed to the elements. And lest you think that the winter shelter is preventing injury related to things like frostbite, there was some compelling images shared by Dr. O’Connell proving that those folks are staying outside and not even accessing winter shelter.
To me, it begs several questions that I think must be considered locally before you put out a whack of money into a winter shelter, and rally volunteers and a community response at a large scale:
- If the issue is one of shelter space, shouldn’t your community have adequate shelter space year round, and not just the winter?
- If you are concerned about health and welfare, why not invest more in preventative and routine health care, as well as home health care for people that move from homelessness into housing?
- Is the matter really one of sensationalized media attention and knee jerk policy response rather than thoughtful analysis and planning? While one person that is homeless dying from exposure is too many, is that one person’s life worth more than the 30 that died from cancer or heart disease?
- In many communities more people that are homeless die from violence and other disease in the summer than hypothermia in the winter, so why are we not doing more in the summer?
- If the people that are using winter shelter generally are NOT the completely street entrenched population, but rather are episodic and other shelter users, are you actually designing a response for the population you think is served by your response?
- With so many winter responses being facilities that were not designed to be shelter, have you thought through the ramifications of providing accommodation in a setting where you are more likely to be spreading communicable disease because of insufficient air turnover and cots/mats that are in close proximity to one another?
- Is your winter shelter part of the professional shelter response in your community – or do you run it through well intentioned faith groups and volunteers? Is the quality of service of your winter response at least equal to the quality of service provided in other shelters?
- If your winter response was to assist those that you perceive as the most vulnerable, could the same money and staffing been used to house and support these individuals rather than providing them temporary housing?
- What is the outcome that you intend to achieve with your winter shelter…what difference does it really make at the end of the day? (Compared to what difference you think it makes.)
- How does a bandaid measure of a winter response fit into your pursuit of ending homelessness?
Think about it.