Record breaking cold hits homeless hard

Hamilton's public health department has issued eight cold weather alerts this winter totalling 52 days. As the city's homeless population tries to escape the cold, space at local shelters is running low.
The bitter cold this winter is putting a bigger burden on social service agencies as they work to accommodate anyone who needs shelter. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Hamilton’s homeless population is being driven indoors by one of the coldest winters on record.

Robert Ward says it’s not unusual for the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter to fill up a few nights every year, but this winter they’ve had to put mattresses on the floor to accommodate their clients.

During cold weather alerts, Ward says the shelter opens its doors to anyone who knocks, even those who have misbehaved in the past—and might normally be excluded. When all the beds are full, clients are given a bit of floor, a blanket and a mattress for the night.

During the last alert, Ward says the Booth Centre was filled to overflowing for a full week. “The high winds were too much even for those who prefer to be on the street,” he says.

More cold alerts than normal

Hamilton has seen 52 days of extreme cold this winter. According to Matthew Lawson at the city’s public health department, that’s unheard of.

“We had 27 days a few years ago,” Lawson says, but that’s nothing compared with this year.

The city calls a cold weather alert when the temperature drops below -15 C, -20 C with a windchill. Lawson says, when the mercury drops that low, people on the street are at risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia.

“The body cannot keep itself warm and you start to shiver,” Lawson says. “If you don’t start to warm up, it can lead to death.”

To give people on the street the best chance of survival, the city alerts local homeless shelters and hot meal programs to any threat of cold. Lawson says the shelters will make an extra effort to get people off the street.

Cold temperatures expected until May

Local shelters are hoping for a break from the cold, but Environment Canada continues to predict colder than normal temperatures for March and much of April.

It’s been a record breaking year for cold weather, says meteorologist Geoff Coulson. “We’ve been colder than normal pretty much every month of the winter...going all the way back to November of last year.”

According to Environment Canada, Hamilton residents can expect it to reach -20 C tonight. The regular low for this time of year is -6 C.

“That’s a huge difference and obviously something that people would be noticing.” Coulson says it will get warmer as the week draws to a close, but the weather won’t return to normal until late April or early May.