Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City's homeless filling shelters

Few perish from exposure to the cold

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After each winter night, as the temperatures fall to -30 C and worse, Keesha Daniels is amazed the morning doesn't reveal the body of another homeless person frozen in a snowbank.

"It shocks us," said the manager of the Main Street Project. "I mean, we go out in our van and we find people under bridges. We'll find people in bus shelters. We'll find people on restaurant grates, behind garbage bins."

Incredibly, they are found alive. Almost always.

Although statistics aren't readily available (death can involve factors such as an overdose or natural causes), reported cases of death by exposure in Winnipeg are rare. Three years ago, a 31-year-old woman died in Winnipeg after being exposed to -20 C weather (with windchill) in a city bus shelter, although the cause of death was never confirmed.

Daniels' shock at the lack of more such deaths is due to the fact Winnipeg shelters for the homeless have been at or near capacity in the recent cold snap..

"We're maxed out, to the point where people are literally in the halls to keep out of the weather," Daniels said of her facility, which has 73 beds that are filled each night on a first-come, first-served basis. "That's wall-to-wall (sleeping) mats and everything. It's never enough."

The Salvation Army recently added 35 beds to the existing 285 to handle the demand.

"The reality is we never turn anyone away from our doors," said Maj. Chris Dickens, "especially in these temperatures. We're the last stop."

At the Siloam Mission, where all 110 beds are filled, spokesman Mike Derksen said the "cold-weather strategy" of the city's shelters is in full effect, in which the agencies work together to ensure those who come to their doors find a warm bed.

"We're watching very closely to see if people have signs of frostbite or hypothermia or if they need clothing," Dersken said, noting Siloam has a clothing room open five days a week, filled with free parkas, boots, mittens, socks and toques.

Derksen said that apart from the beds being occupied, the centre is packing in up to 300 visitors daily now, which can create "cabin-fever" tension. "Being homeless has a lot of challenges," he said. "They're already experiencing a high level of stress. Having to worry about braving the elements adds to that stress."

The key to survival, said one homeless man eating a lunch of soup and peanut butter sandwiches at the Lighthouse Mission Tuesday afternoon, is knowing the basics: Siloam tests for alcohol or drug abuse, the Main Street Project doesn't, but reaches capacity at 8:30 p.m. on frigid nights.

"As long as you're not causing a disturbance (at the Main Street Project), you're welcome," the 28-year-old said. "Siloam has clothes, but you've got to be sober."

Asked about the frigid conditions, a 56-year-old named Pete at the Lighthouse Mission shrugged and said: "It (winter) happens everywhere. You've got to be dressed for it. Long underwear."

The real danger, say shelter operators, is the possibility of drug or alcohol overdoses leading to exposure.

"Intoxication plus cold weather can equal death," Daniels said.

"You don't find a lot of people crawling into spots where they're at risk of exposure," said Winnipeg police spokesman Const. Robert Carver.

"I think it's part of the culture where winter is brutal. If you're homeless, you make sure you have a place to go. You can't just tuck yourself into a (garbage) bin and survive."

There are programs such as Downtown Watch, operated by the Winnipeg Downtown BIZ, which has patrols trained to connect the homeless with shelters and services.

During the day, when temperatures can sink into the minus -20s, the homeless "more often than not find indoor places to go," said Brendan Malakym, safety supervisor of Downtown Watch. "Usually they move around, looking for food or clothing. They might not be as well-equipped, but they still have the same needs."

The last line of protection for the homeless might be the most critical: themselves.

"They look after each other," said Main Street Project crisis worker Larry Cook. "They're like one big family."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2013 A5

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