By Jim Bell, CEO

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **


With a deep freeze on our doorstep, many people are turning their attention to the needs of the homeless.

At Siloam Mission we get dozens of calls per day from caring Manitobans wanting to know how the cold weather affects the homeless.

They’re worried about how people are staying warm, if they are finding shelter, if homeless shelters are full, if people are at risk of frost bite or worse, and if the need is greater when it gets colder.

With temperatures dropping, we’re starting to run out of gloves, long underwear, winter boots, jackets, socks and toques, especially for men. I’m sure many other shelters are in the same position.

Of course, there’s no worse time to be homeless than in winter.

If people are outside for long periods of time, they are at risk. That’s why shelters like Main Street Project, the Salvation Army and us are keeping a close eye on our guests to make sure everyone is staying warm and dressed properly. And the Extreme Cold Weather Response Plan — a group that includes the City of Winnipeg, emergency shelters, outreach workers and health services — is collaborating to make sure nobody is left out in the cold.

There are outreach vans patrolling the downtown core looking for vulnerable people in distress. Foot patrols are active on various days of the week doing the same. And the public libraries, pools and leisure centres welcome anyone who needs to stay warm during regular opening hours.

But what people often don’t think about is that the greatest challenge of being homeless is not physical — it’s mental.

It’s easy to think that if people have three meals a day, clothing and shelter for the night they are taken care of. And while they might survive physically, their mental health might not.

The long periods of uncertainty creates trauma. People who use emergency shelters are often highly stressed out at all times because they lack control over their housing situation.

Add to the fact that most people are homeless in the first place because of a crisis in their life — be it job loss, addictions, physical and cognitive disabilities, mental health illnesses or relationship breakdown.

When temperatures plummet, many have no choice but to stay inside all day in a drop-in centre or shelter. With a cold snap like we usually see in January and February, they can be cooped up for days.

Imagine hundreds of people — each of them dealing with high stress levels of their own — squeezed together in one room for days. It’s not hard to see how people get emotionally ground down.

My prayer is that we’ll all come out of this winter ok. And that the mental health of our most vulnerable can survive to live another day.

In the meantime, shelters in the city could sure use your donations of winter gear to keep the hands and feet of our struggling neighbours warm.