Winter takes health toll on urban homeless

According to Toronto Emergency Medical Services, a majority of homeless people suffer a moderate stage of hypothermia at some point during Toronto’s frequently cruel winters.

Hypothermia is the physiological response as the body’s core temperature drops below the normal 36 degrees Celsius. With moderate hypothermia the body temperature drops by 2-4 degrees.

During the past week Toronto has endured extremely cold weather, and although it has been warming up, people on the streets still have to struggle to stay dry.

According to Fred Schaefer, Superintendent of Community Paramedicine for Toronto EMS, wet clothing increases the risk of hypothermia.

“If your clothing is wet, go somewhere where you can get your clothes dry or get some new clothing. Once clothing is wet, the wet clothing will actually absorb heat from the body,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer suggests that if you start having symptoms of hypothermia, the first thing you should do is seek heat. In cold and wet environments, the homeless can seek warmth in a homeless shelter, with social services, the hospital or a makeshift shelter.

“If you drive around downtown, you’ll notice that a lot of them will be sleeping or standing on top of steam grates or vent grates downtown or heating exhausts for buildings. That’s what they are doing – just trying to stay warm,” Schaeffer said.

Dr. Gino F. Ferri, director of wilderness survival courses at Survival in the Bush, Inc., agrees that such heat sources are a necessity for the urban homeless.

“In the wintertime, once you’re cold, you can’t warm up. It’s just impossible. You’ll get hypothermia, and dehydration is a big problem. [With] the heating grates you have got to stay close to them or you’ll simply freeze again,” Ferri said.

Another hypothermia risk factor faced by the homeless, beyond the ordinary perils of slipping on winter ice, is alcohol, which reduces tolerance to cold. Drinking too much and passing out, at the mercy of the elements, can be deadly.

Hypothermia, as it sets in, further dulls the body and the mind: “You don’t have the ability to understand your body and understand you are getting cold,” Schaeffer said. “You just don’t have that same response.”

When living exposed to Toronto’s cold winter, Dr. Ferri says the necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter and dry clothing, matter most.

Having pitched more than a few tents in the snows of wilderness Ontario, Ferri understands better than most the challenges of living exposed.

“Comfort is non-existent when you are out there… You never sleep when you’re extremely cold. You just do your best to utilize what nature is giving you. If there is wind, make some shelter…

“Stay out of the wind,” he adds.

2 comments:

  1. There is no safe way to sleep outside in a Toronto winter. People without housing should seek a shelter bed or at least get inside. The Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre is open 24/7. It is at 129 Peter Street, just east of Spadina and south of Queen. Anyone can call 311 to get a referral to a shelter bed. Citizens can also call 311 if they see someone outside who needs street outreach assistance. Always call 911 if it is an emergency.

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