The Dead Of Winter

Last modified on November 28th, 2007

Vancouver, being a coastal city surrounded by mountains, has one of the most moderate climates in all of Canada. The average temperature in the summer probably hovers around 20C or so, and in the winter, rarely drops below 0C. Last time I checked, only one out of every five Christmases in Vancouver is white.

And despite the relatively warm temperatures here, walking the streets of this city in winter you’ll see the homeless struggling to keep warm, often forced to cover themselves with newspapers, cardboard boxes, or whatever damp clothing can be found in the dumpsters. Every night, they find whatever protection from the elements they can, wrap themselves up, and go to sleep.

Now imagine if you will cities like Toronto, Winnipeg or Ottawa, where temperatures in the winter can fall to -30C and below. At these temperatures saliva will freeze rapidly, and skin will crack from the cold. And yet, many of the homeless are forced to endure these conditions, night after night, month after month, hoping that each time they close their eyes they will be afforded the luxury of opening them again in the morning. It must be a terrible thing to live with that fear.

While Canada is experiencing a strong economy, anti-poverty advocates say that low welfare rates, lack of affordable housing, and low minimum wage are all contributing to an increase in homelessness. Toronto has the largest homeless population in the country at 5,052. Of those, 3,649 live in shelters while some 818 sleep outside.

Toronto has an average of two homeless deaths per week. These, according to Crowe, result from a multitude of causes: accidents, trauma, beatings, disease, hate crimes, and hypothermia. A vigil is held once a month for those who die on the streets.

Vancouver is not faring much better. A report released by Pivot Legal Society in September said the city is on the brink of a social housing crisis and called for action from all levels of government. The Downtown Eastside legal advocacy group predicts that Vancouver’s homeless population of 2,175 will triple by 2010 when the city hosts the Winter Olympics. [1]

So let it not be forgotten that as the holiday season approaches and most of us take to battling long lines in malls, an important group of people will be battling instead for their very lives, each and every night out on the streets. And many of them, despite the efforts of others, will not make it through the coming winter.