By Jim Bell, CEO
** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **
I dread this time of the year.
It’s not that I don’t like the Christmas season. In fact, it’s one of my favourite holidays and gives me hope every year.
It’s not the fact that the football season is over. While I can’t wait for the Bombers to be back at it, I get a lot of joy from seeing the Jets on the ice.
No, I dread this time of the year because the brutal Winnipeg winter weather puts many of our most vulnerable men and women at severe risk.
Thankfully, because of the generous support of the community, there are places for people experiencing homelessness to go.
Our dry shelter at Siloam Mission provides a safe bed for 110 men and women every night, many of whom are working hard to stay sober.
And our friends at Salvation Army and Main Street Project are busy every night, helping everyone who comes to their doors stay safe and warm in these plummeting temperatures. They’re even running outreach vans to find people in need of help.
But that doesn’t mean our homeless population is safe during the winter. Far from it.
There are those who choose to live outside, regardless of temperature. They often struggle with a mental health issue such as social anxiety disorders that prevent them from being cooped up in a shelter with others.
Then there are those who simply misjudge the weather or their own condition to survive it, especially during the shoulder seasons at the beginning and end of winter. And there are those who seek refuge in malls, libraries, lobbies of businesses and bus shelters.
So as the frigid temperatures descend on Winnipeg, I would like to ask for your help in making it a safe one for our vulnerable neighbours.
Would you make an extra effort this winter to pay attention to those who call our streets home?
It’s an easy thing to do, but it could save a life.
As you go about your daily life, be on the lookout for people who may be sleeping in places like bus shelters or under stairwells. If you notice anyone who is unresponsive or you think needs some help, call emergency services.
If you see somebody with a physical disability having a hard time getting through the snow and ice, offer to lend a hand. Many people in the inner city — especially seniors — go hungry in bad weather because they cannot physically make it to food banks or emergency shelters.
And most importantly, be kind in sharing our public spaces.
When you notice people hanging out in malls, lobbies and other heated spaces, offer up a smile and a friendly word. Maybe the greatest gift you can give someone this Christmas is the dignity of seeing their humanity. You might be surprised by the effect you can have on someone by simply acknowledging them.
Remember, the biggest effect cold weather and homelessness has on people is not always physical — it’s mental.
And in a frozen prairie town like Winnipeg, we’re all in it together. It’s us against the wind chill and the frostbite and the blizzards. And at the end of it, we should all make it out alive.