In Canada and Across the Globe, Many Homeless People Still Feel Safer Outside Than in Shelters

Man Sleeping outdoors in winter

As winter comes to a close, we mustn’t forget that homelessness is a cold reality 365 days a year. In Canada and elsewhere, that cold reality extends itself far beyond the city streets. It infiltrates other places where homeless people are offered “refuge” – namely, homeless shelters.

The average temperature in Toronto in February is a bone chilling 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold enough to lose your life and limbs. Due to the extreme temps, emergency shelters that are otherwise unavailable open their doors. It would seem a warm gesture, but it isn’t always warmly received. And there are plenty of good reasons for that. Take a moment to learn what really goes on in shelters.

To Be Clear, Homeless People Would Never Choose the Streets Over a Home. That Said, Some Shelters Are Even More Terrifying than the Premise of Freezing to Death

From the inside looking out, as many housed people too often do, the above statement might seem ridiculous. After all, what could possibly be more terrifying than the premise of freezing to death? The answer is long and complicated. We could start with freezing while getting robbed. We could end with being separated from your children or beloved pets. Sadly, many of Canada’s emergency homeless shelters are riddled with a hodgepodge of abhorrent conditions. Below are just a few examples:

Lack of Life-Sustaining Supplies.

A study conducted by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty confirmed what many homeless advocates already knew: overcrowding in emergency shelters meant many would have to go without the life-sustaining supplies they might have otherwise had stashed either on their person or in their makeshift shelters. Such supplies included blankets (despite the fact that some shelters were still incredibly cold) pillows, blankets, and mats to sleep on. And just because these shelters are indoors does not mean they are adequately heated.

One particular drop-in center by the name of All Saints reached a brutal indoor temperature of -18 degrees Celsius. Can you imagine thinking you’re being ushered in from the cold only to find yourself locked into a -18 degree interior space with no blanket, no pillow, and no adequate place to sleep? This would be more frustrating if your makeshift shelter was brimming with such supplies.

No Beds.

That same study concluded that 80% of emergency shelter inhabitants were never given access to a bed and were therefore forced to sleep in spaces similar to other unsheltered dwelling areas such as doorways, stairwells and concrete slabs.

Infectious Diseases Claiming Lives and Causing Chaos.

Outbreaks of infectious disease wreak havoc on homeless people who come in cold and shivering. They are already more susceptible to becoming sick. Take the male homeless shelter Seaton House’s notorious strep A battle, which caused 10 fatalities.

Not Nearly Enough Bathrooms.

The average bathroom to resident ratio in a Toronto emergency shelter is three for every 100 temporary residents. With such an extreme lack of available facilities, many overnight residents are forced to relieve themselves inside, leaving hallways, doorways, and walkways littered with urine and feces. In turn, this leads to more spread of disease and a general lack of sanitation.

Extreme Violence.

While rarely reported in the press, many shelters are rife with violence, from fistfights to sexual assaults to theft to murder and just about everything in between. Advocate and “street nurse” Cathy Crowe uncovered one example in which an unnamed 36-year old man was fatally choked in a Canada shelter.

There’s No Such Thing as Shelter Resistant Homeless People

There are, however, people-resistant homeless shelters. These places are ever present, but they draw more attention in the cold.

In a series of rattling interviews, Canada’s homeless population has declared, in not so many words, that some shelters are more dangerous than frostbite, more lethal than a bout with hypothermia, and more harrowing than a harsh wind stirring up a perilous storm. Here are some quotes from those who’ve spent time inside the drop-in centers and lived to tell their stories:

“I got my nose broken, my eyes blackened. I was in the hospital three times. Once, I got stabbed.”

~ Statement from an anonymous resident at the Salvation Army’s Maxwell Meighen Centre shelter for men.

“The severe crowding in this shelter is clearly a risk to the health of the individuals forced to live in this situation and creates conditions that pose a public health risk through the spread of TB and other infectious diseases.”

~ Statement from health epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Hwang.

“It’s safer out here. There’s no bugs. No one’s going to beat you up or steal your s***.”

~ Statement from Barb, an unsheltered homeless woman braving a bitter Toronto winter.

Homelessness Is Not a Choice

Whenever you pass an unsheltered homeless person, remember that homelessness is not a choice. Even if this person has the apparent option of going into a shelter, not all, or even most shelters, are warm and fuzzy on the inside. In fact, some shelters are even colder than the corner of a dark and lonely street. While the most permanent solution for ending homelessness is, of course, housing, the harsh reality is that we are a far cry from being able to provide that for everyone. As we scramble to shelter our unhoused neighbors, we must make strides to perfecting the shelter system and creating a safe environment – even if it’s only temporary. As the weather thaws, let us not forget the cold, hard truth.

Talk to your regional representatives about their plans for improving shelter conditions and building more affordable housing nationwide.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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