The Hamilton Spectator

Extreme cold increases calls to declare public health crisis

Councillor wants warming centres open 24 hours


Councillor­s in Toronto are set to consider keeping warming centres open 24-7 for the rest of the winter amid growing calls for homelessne­ss to be declared a public health crisis in the city.

Most of Ontario was under extreme cold warnings late last week, with frigid temperatur­es presenting greater risks for those without proper shelter.

Calls to keep warming centres open around the clock in Toronto have been growing, with community workers and medical providers saying the city policy to open them once temperatur­es reach -15 C, or -20 C with wind chill, is cruel, not based in evidence and could be causing preventabl­e cold-related injuries.

The centres open at 7 p.m. on the day an alert is issued and stay open until noon on the day an alert ends.

Coun. Alejandra Bravo — who helped introduce a motion that recommends the city provide 24-7 indoor warming locations until April 15 — said a lack of available spaces to take shelter from the cold means those experienci­ng homelessne­ss are taking refuge in unsuitable public spaces.

“We’re in a situation where public libraries, the transit system, 24hour restaurant­s, all manners of buildings people can access are actually de facto shelter spaces right now,” said Bravo.

“They’re showing up in emergency department­s, putting a huge strain on emergency department­s simply because they want to get inside ... that’s not a recipe for the health of anyone or social harmony.”

In Hamilton, the city said it is reevaluati­ng its cold response policy after “a realized gap” in its winter response services in December, when recreation centres used as warming centres were closed for staff holidays, as well as increased demand for shelter spaces.

Hamilton city council voted in January to spend an expected $415,000 to add daily overnight warming spaces and keep them open until the end of March.

However, Rob Mastroiann­i, manager of homelessne­ss and housing support, said the 21 available spaces at the Hamilton’s only coed overnight drop-in centre have generally been at capacity in recent days. As a result, users have to be cycled in and out every hour, he said.

In St. Catharines, outreach worker Emily Spanton said options for homeless individual­s are limited.

The city’s only warming centre runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, she said, and there aren’t enough shelter beds or overnight emergency shelter spaces to accommodat­e hundreds of unhoused residents.

At the city’s breakfast program for unhoused individual­s recently, Spanton said she attended to many people with frostbite, including one man whose toe came off when she changed his socks.

“It was fully blackened,” she said. “He told me that he was considerin­g breaking into an abandoned building just to stay warm.”

Adriana Di Stefano, a Toronto doctor and member of Health Providers Against Poverty, said coldrelate­d injuries like the one Spanton saw are preventabl­e, and can be traumatic for people experienci­ng homelessne­ss.

“The solution seems very simple: provide shelter, provide warming centres, provide supportive housing, provide long-term housing,” she said.

 ?? CHRIS YOUNG THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? John eats a hot dinner at a meal program for the homeless and marginally housed at St. Stephensin-the-Fields Church in Toronto.
CHRIS YOUNG THE CANADIAN PRESS John eats a hot dinner at a meal program for the homeless and marginally housed at St. Stephensin-the-Fields Church in Toronto.

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