Hamilton’s emergency shelters are packed, as a deep freeze is sending the city’s homeless and other vulnerable residents indoors.

Lorraine Chapman, director of women’s services at the Good Shepherd Centres, said both of the agency’s women’s shelters were operating at or above capacity on Thursday night, when temperatures plunged below -20 C.

“We have been consistently running at capacity with 30 women, which is an expansion of 10 beds that the city has allowed us until May 31,” said Lorraine Chapman, of the Good Shepherd’s Mary’s Place.

The Good Shepherd’s men’s, family and youth shelters were also operating near, at or above capacity on Thursday night.

“We bring in additional staff to ensure nobody is turned away,” said Dawn Kidder, program director at the Good Shepherd’s Notre Dame House.

“If we can bring them in, we’ll bring them in, if it’s not an appropriate placement, we’ll work with other shelters to make an arrangement.”

Chapman says the Good Shepherd has a policy of not refusing anyone shelter during a cold weather alert.

In addition, the agency provides warm meals and protective clothing to overnight guests and other visitors.

“We certainly give people information about access to warm clothing and a hot meal if they're not willing to come to a shelter," she added.

Weather warning 'seems to be working:' EMS rep

Hamilton has been under a cold weather alert since Tuesday night. Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, issues the alert every time the temperature is expected to dip below -15 C or -20 C with wind chill.

Carmen D’Angelo, a spokesman with the Hamilton Paramedic Service, said the weather hasn’t directly resulted in many “cold-related calls” to EMS.

“So far, we haven’t seen cold-related calls like frostbite, those types of cold-related emergencies,” said D’Angelo. “The cold alert seems to be working.”

However, homeless individuals have been seeking shelter at the emergency room at the Hamilton General Hospital, said Calyn Pettit, a representative with Hamilton Health Sciences.

“They’re just looking to get into the warm space,” she said, adding that social workers have been assigned to deal with the shelter-seekers’ needs.

“Social workers will ensure that the individual has warm clothing, and establish a connection with a local shelter for that individual before they’re discharged.”

Hypothermia signs

In an interview with CBC Hamilton, Dr. Suneel Upadhye, an emergency staff physician with St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, told city residents they should strive to stay warm and dry during the frigid weather and to look out for signs that they’ve spent too much time in the cold. 

Shivering is a telltale sign that the body is too cold. But shivering can stop when the body begins to lose its ability to regulate its temperature, he noted. 

Another sign of the onset of hypothermia, the lowering of the body’s core temperature, is “feeling tired or fatigued,” Upadhye said. 

“Ideally, one will have come in before then. At that point you’re not going to be making good decisions.”

How hospital staff treat a person with hypothermia depends on the severity of the case, Upadhye said.

Most often, he said, doctors apply “passive warming techniques,” such as changing a patient’s clothes, and given the individual warm blankets and hot fluids to drink.

In more severe cases, doctors can insert catheters into a patient to circulate warm fluids through the body. 

In extreme cases, the cardiovascular unit at Hamilton General Hospital, he said, can hook up a patient to a machine that warms the individual’s blood outside of the body.

Upadhye urged Hamiltonians who see vulnerable people outside to encourage them seek warmth inside a library, community centre or emergency shelter. 

“Prevention is more important than any of the active treatments, ideally. “