Many Edmontonians will spend the winter outside in sub-zero temperatures

“A passerby discovered the frozen body of a man near Commonwealth Stadium Sunday morning in what police say is the weekend’s first cold weather-related fatality.”

The above quote is from the Feb. 3, 2019 edition of the Edmonton Journal. Temperatures that evening dropped to a low of minus 37 degrees. For most of us, the cold that night was barely a thought as we snuggled under blankets in our insulated and heated homes. Imagine not having a warm, secure, comfortable home on those cold winter nights. That is the reality for nearly 600 people in Edmonton each night, according to Homeward Trust.

This isn’t a new concern in Edmonton. Each winter, at least one chronically homeless person freezes to death on the street. A Health Trends Alberta report shows that from 2003 to 2014, roughly 15 per cent of frostbite with tissue necrosis discharges from Alberta hospitals were homeless people—people who make up only .25 per cent of the population, a staggering statistic. Not much has changed since 2014. With COVID-19 and the oil crash creating higher unemployment, this crisis will only get worse. 

Long-term plans for more safe, affordable housing are in the works. The race track jockey dorm at Northlands is being renovated to work as bridge housing while people wait for permanent housing. The City is considering modular homes—which can be built 50 per cent faster than conventional housing—in the future. 

All great ideas, but none address the immediate issues facing homeless people this coming winter. As residents of an area with the highest rates of homelessness and precariously housed individuals, we can take direct action to prevent these deaths and injuries. 

One of the most accessible ways to help is to pay attention. When temperatures drop well below zero, watching out for others is vitally important. Homeward Trust, along with the City of Edmonton and 25 other organizations, coordinate to offer the Winter Emergency Response (WER). Dial 211 to be connected to WER, who will send out the appropriate supports for the person you are concerned about. This may include blankets, hot food and drink, and a ride to a shelter for the evening. If you are unsure if someone needs help, simply ask. If you can, bring them a blanket or some warm food until help arrives.

Organizing a donation drive for much-needed items such as blankets, tents, winter coats, warm socks, gloves, scarves, toques, and pocket warmers will go a long way. You can donate directly to people you know are sleeping rough or through the many organizations in Edmonton helping the homeless population. The Bissell Centre on 96 St and 105 Ave and Boyle Street Community Services on 101 St and 105 Ave are excellent places to drop off warm winter clothing. Camp Pekiwewin, in the Rossdale neighbourhood near Re/Max field, is another location to bring donations. Monetary donations are also an appropriate option, as it allows the organization to buy what is most needed.

For those who can crochet or wish to learn, crocheting sleeping mats out of plastic bags is a novel idea with a big impact. The mats keep those without a bed off the wet, cold ground, can be easily cleaned, are water resistant, and roll up easily, making them easy to transport. Although a seemingly small thing, keeping bodies dry and off the cold ground makes a huge difference to keeping people healthy and warm during the winter. If you’ve ever lain on a cement floor in a cold building, you know getting warm is nearly impossible. This project has the added benefit of using up the plastic bags stashed all over your home.

Finally, one of the most important ways you can help is to advocate, loudly and persistently, for more safe and affordable housing. Reach out to your city councillor, your MLA, and even your federal MP. Reach out often through email or by phone. Join local rallies and protests aimed at protecting and helping our homeless population. 

If we can all approach those struggling with housing with compassion, empathy, and concern at the forefront of our minds, we can help ensure that our neighbours and fellow Edmontonians make it through the winter alive.

Featured Image: Homelessness in Edmonton is an ongoing issue. | Wolfgang van de Rydt from Pixabay