Blog: Unhoused: Dangers of the Cold
This article focuses on the realities of individuals who are unhoused, while facing extreme Alberta winters. The purpose is to understand the extent of this health crisis, create conversation, and facilitate system change for our unhoused neighbours.
By Mackenzie Dachuk, Practicum Student
Extreme cold temperatures in Canada are often expected and unavoidable, and people experiencing houselessness face greater risks for their health and safety. Blizzards, ice storms, high winds, and blowing snow can develop quickly, and threaten life and property (Alberta, n.d.). Alberta experiences cold and extreme cold temperatures during the winter, when temperatures can reach as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius and can remain consistently below minus 10 degrees Celsius (Alberta, n.d.). When temperatures reach this low, it becomes extremely life threatening for vulnerable populations and those experiencing houselessness as they may experience frost bite, hypothermia, shock, or fire hazards.
The relationship between houselessness and health outcomes is evident within our society, and with the addition of cold and extreme cold temperatures during the winter, it makes matters worse. The houseless population experiences numerous physical health problems, such as infectious diseases, chronic diseases, injuries, exposure, nutritional deficiencies, and foot and skin issues (Public Health Ontario, 2019).
Homeward Trust shows there were more than 2800 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton, with over 700 living outdoors and nearly 500 living in shelters (Homeward Trust, 2023). People experiencing homelessness in Edmonton are at a much greater risk of different physical and mental health concerns and are having a disproportionately large impact on the health care system (Swenserude, 2023). In a community and public services committee meeting, lead medical officer Dr. Chris Sikora discusses the solution to the overburdened health care system as enhancing the supportive housing environments for the houseless. (2023)
“Some individuals might be at risk for homeless but not yet homeless, we need to keep them housed” (Sikora, 2023)
Individuals experiencing houselessness are disproportionately affected by extreme weather conditions. There has been a drastic increase in the number of houseless individuals who had to undergo amputations due to extreme cold, resulting from frost bite (Counterfire, 2023). For the working houseless, this becomes an even bigger struggle. Many of these individuals who have undergone amputations are often discharged back to houselessness where healing and getting around are even more challenging, and many can no longer work (Huncar, 2022). Alberta Health Services has said they do not track amputations from frostbite, deaths, or causes of deaths among houseless individuals living in Edmonton and had no further information to provide (Huncar, 2022). Injuries and amputations due to frostbite have been on the rise, yet it is concerning that deaths due to hypothermia and frost bite amputations remain unrecorded. Our houseless community members deserve to have these injuries and deaths recorded so that the government, health care services, and the larger community can better understand the scope of the problem, and can get a clear picture of peoples lived experience (Huncar, 2022).
When individuals experiencing houselessness work to avoid frostbite injuries, they put themselves at further risk by lighting fires within their encampment or dumpsters to stay warm and dry. Tent fires are an increasingly common occurrence, especially in cities with a large houseless population (Huang et al., 2021). Individuals experiencing houselessness are creative and resourceful in trying to find efforts to keep warm, however these resources are still extremely dangerous to the unhoused without proper shelter or tools. Houseless individuals who are dwelling in these tents have specific risk factors that predispose them to fire injury, such as makeshift kitchens within a confined and flammable tent (Huang et al., 2021). Burn injuries and deaths due to tent fires is a public health crisis with consequences for the health and safety of our houseless population and those around them (Huang et al., 2021). Further, losing one’s tent which is that person’s home has devastating effects.
The City of Edmonton has developed the “Supporting Vulnerable People During Extreme Weather Conditions” policy, which has been put in place to ensure Edmonton’s commitment to reducing the health impacts of extreme weather conditions on vulnerable people. “The City of Edmonton and Homeward Trust work collaboratively to facilitate an emergency response during extreme heat and cold temperatures and peak shelter occupancy to ensure community members have a safe place to be” (Homeward Trust, 2022). With roughly 2700 Edmontonians experiencing houselessness, the Edmonton Coalition for Housing and Houselessness says at least 1550 additional shelter spaces are needed. Homeward Trust provides information on available shelter spaces that include 24/7 shelters, day services, and the Boyle Street Community Services Winter Warming Bus which operates throughout the winter regardless of temperatures (2022). For Alberta, the Extreme Cold Warning is issued when temperatures or windchill are expected to reach minus 40 degrees Celsius, whereas in the City of Toronto, warming centers are activated when an Extreme Cold Weather Alert has been issued of minus 15 degrees Celsius or colder temperatures, or a wind chill of minus 15 degrees Celsius or colder (City of Toronto, n.d.).
Many environmental and health organizations provide safety tips and precautions to the public when our communities face extreme cold weather. These preparation and safety tips include winterizing your home, inspecting your heating systems, and preparing your vehicle before winter arrives (National Center for Environmental Health, 2022). Other preparation and safety tips include minimizing travel, staying indoors during cold spells, wearing warm clothing, and staying dry and out of the wind (National Weather Service, n.d.). These safety tips and precautions are very privileged in that they are directed at individuals who have the supplies, means and shelter to remain comfortable throughout the winter months. For our houseless community members, these safety tips and precautions do not account for the barriers in accessing proper gear and clothing to facing the cold and extreme cold.
Individuals experiencing houselessness often resort to these warming centers and fires to keep warm, however, a lack of appropriate weather wear and accessibility to this gear is a barrier for our houseless community members. When individuals have the proper clothing to withstand cold temperatures this can help, but wet and damp clothing is another factor that must be taken into consideration. Though the human body can regulate temperature change, “…the most dangerous and rapid heat loss occurs when clothing is wet, wind is high, surfaces are cold, or when body is immersed in cold water” (UFCW, n.d.).
Edmonton’s Supporting Vulnerable People During Extreme Weather Conditions policy is only put into effect during cases of extreme weather, which they define as “…hazardous weather or environmental event that poses a significant threat to public safety and property.” Why does policy only intervene and support individuals who are houseless when the weather is deemed cold enough by people who do not know what it is like to be experiencing houselessness during winter conditions. Housing and support during any type of weather conditions is a human right for all community members including those experiencing houselessness.
Understanding the extent of houselessness and the experiences of those who are houseless enables communities and services to develop supports to reduce it (Public Health Ontario, 2019). Houseless individuals living in cold and extreme cold conditions has become a health crisis with consequences for the health and safety of our houseless population and those around them. (Huang et al., 2021). There needs to be a push for accessible and supportive housing, including access to appropriate clothing to withstand the harsh winter conditions. As for the community, we must do better for our vulnerable neighbors and houseless community members.
Mackenzie Dachuk is currently in her third year of the Bachelor of Social Work program at MacEwan University and is completing her practicum with the Edmonton Social Planning Council. She has a passion for helping others and empowering them in achieving their goals. Mackenzie plays hockey for the MacEwan women’s team and enjoys sports, travel, and connecting with the community.
Alberta.ca. (n.d.) Blizzards, freezing rain, ice storms and extreme cold. Retrieved from https://www.alberta.ca/blizzards-freezing-rain-ice-storms-and-extreme-cold.aspx
Government of Canda. (n.d.). Criteria for public weather alerts. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/types-weather-forecasts-use/public/criteria-alerts.html
City of Toronto. (n.d.) Warming Centers. Retrieved from https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/housing-shelter/homeless-help/warming-centres-2/#:~:text=The%20City’s%20Warming%20Centres%20are,20%C2%B0%20C%20or%20colder
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Clarke, J., (2023, January 19). Winter cold is social murder for the homeless. Counterfire. Retrieved from https://www.counterfire.org/article/winter-cold-is-social-murder-for-the-homeless/
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Huang, S., Choi, K. J., Pham, C. H., Collier, Z. J., Dang, J. M., Kiwanuka, H., Sheckter, C. C., Yenikomshian, H. A., & Gillenwater, J. (2021). Homeless tent fires: A descriptive analysis of tent fires in the homeless population. Journal of Burn Care & Research, 42(5), 886-893. https://doi-org.ezproxy.macewan.ca/10.1093/jbcr/irab095
National Center for Environmental Health. (2022). Stay safe and healthy in winter. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/winterweather/index.html
National Weather Service (n.d.) Extreme Cold Safety Tips. Retrieved from https://www.weather.gov/bgm/outreachExtremeColdSafety
Public Health Ontario. (2019). Homelessness and health outcomes: What are the associations? Retrieved from https://www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/E/2019/eb-homelessness-health.pdf
Sikora, C. Effects of homelessness on the healthcare ecosystem. (2023, February 7). City of Edmonton Community and Public Services Committee. Retrieved from https://pub-edmonton.escribemeetings.com/Players/ISIStandAlonePlayer.aspx?Id=f0e0c375-a3fd-4f3c-a92f-1d63fc85517d
Swensrude, S. (2023, February 7). Homeless in Edmonton face health challenges, but stable housing can help. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/9467677/edmonton-homeless-health-challenges-report/
United Food and Commerical Workers Union (UFCW). (n.d.). Health and Safety. Retrieved from https://www.ufcw.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=42&Itemid=123&lang=en#:~:text=The%20most%20dangerous%20and%20rapid,conditions%20or%20with%20dry%20clothing