Out in the cold

How to help the homeless before winter hits

When Environment Canada issues an extreme cold weather alert, many of Toronto’s homeless are left in the cold to fend for themselves. For the past few winters, there have been multiple reports of people freezing to death under Toronto’s brutally cold conditions.

The Homeless Memorial Project, a volunteer-run initiative, conducted a study of people who have died on the streets each month. The study includes a list that dates back to 1985 and has over 740 names. Many deaths are still unrecorded.

There are many ways you can contribute to ending homeless deaths on the street. Here are some tips to help people in need during Toronto’s cold weather:

  1. Shelters aren’t the only option
    During the cold weather, Toronto’s shelters often experience overcrowding. However, crowding is not the only thing keeping homeless people on the street when the weather drops. Many people choose to stay away from shelters due to their unsafe history, mental illnesses, claustrophobia and more. Instead, offer these people items like cardboard or a sleeping bag, which will provide a barrier between their body and the cold ground.
  2. Gather your old winter clothes
    Go through your closet and find winter articles that you no longer wear. Also let friends and family know that you are collecting items such as coats, scarves, hats, gloves, socks and blankets. Find your local organization that accepts clothing donations for the homeless, such as churches, shelters and other non-profits.
  3. Ask what they need and talk to who wants to talk to you
    Use your best judgement when it comes to helping a person in need. Don’t force your help on someone. It is alright to ask what they need, but if they do not want help, don’t take it personally. In cold weather conditions, keep your eye open and if you think someone is at risk, ask them if they’re okay. If not, call 911.
  4. Volunteer at homeless shelters and warming centres
    Toronto has two 24-hour warming centres during extreme cold weather. Red Cross warming centres house over 800 people on an average winter night, and they need the extra help.
  5. Advocate
    Targeting the larger issue of homelessness is the key to lowering the number of deaths by hypothermia on Toronto’s streets. There are many local organizations that you can become a part of to help the cause. Project Winter Survival is a non-profit organization based out of Toronto that distributes survival kits containing life saving supplies to the homeless. Over the past 15 years, 20,000 kits have been given to people in need. They accept donations all year round.