the current

People will die in this cold snap without city's help, says homeless advocate Cathy Crowe

Officials are not stepping up to deal with the homelessness crisis, says street nurse Cathy Crowe, and people's lives are at risk as a result.
The rising cost of living is causing people to fall into homelessness, says Cathy Crowe. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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Homeless people say they're at risk of dying on our streets during this deep freeze — and an advocate says officials don't seem to understand what to do about it.

Cathy Crowe, a long-time Toronto street nurse, tells The Current's Friday host Scott Simmie that with one outdoor death reported in December, she doesn't know how people are surviving.

She says some of the biggest risks are dehydration and frostbite, as well as the cold exacerbating existing health conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems. The ultimate risk, she says, is freezing to death.

"There are two homeless deaths per week," she says. "Some are related to cold, some are not, but still, dying homeless is inexcusable."

Street nurse Cathy Crowe is calling on Mayor John Tory to support the opening of Toronto's armouries as emergency shelters. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

"I think there are unreported deaths that we're not hearing about through the coroner and through paramedics and police," she adds.

​Crowe says that while on Thursday night the city did open a facility and provided hot food to those on the street, not enough is being done to combat the root causes.

On Thursday, Ottawa Public Health issued a frostbite warning, but do you know how to spot the symptoms? And what to do about them?

Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze. When skin is exposed to a windchill of -35 C or colder, it can happen in less than 10 minutes. Symptoms include:

  • A prickling feeling in the skin at first, leading to numbness
  • Skin that looks yellowish ro white
  • Skin that becomes hard or waxy to touch

The condition can be treated by gradually warming skin using body heat or warm water.  Never rub or massage affected areas. However, frostbite is a serious condition that lead to amputation; medical advice is strongly advised.

Senior levels of government are not stepping up to build affordable housing, or fund shelters, she says, while gentrification means affordable housing is less available.

"The cost of hydro, food, everything is so much higher that those folks that are right on the edge, are on the edge, and falling into homelessness," she adds.

What's worse, she says, is that cities across the country look to Toronto for an example to follow, but she feels officials are not providing any kind of role model.

"People in Kingston have been in touch with me. They're desperately trying to figure out how to manoeuvre and wake up their city council and their mayor to respond. You know, we should be the lead in showing them that in Toronto."

The need in Toronto right now is enormous, she says, with easily "600 men and women sleeping on floors, not even in real shelters." 
Extreme cold can exacerbate existing health conditions. (David Donnelly/CBC)

After 30 years as a street nurse, the current situation leaves her furious.

"We can do this. We are a rich country, it's absolutely horrible to see city bureaucrats and city officials deny the basic human right to shelter to men, women, and families with children."

Despite her frustration, Crowe says she has been impressed by the caring response from residents of the city, and the whole country.

"Torontonians have totally stepped up on this, and the swell of support to get the armoury open in Toronto and to get things dealt with is huge. I haven't seen anything this large in my career."

Also in this segment, The Current talks to CBC anchor Harry Forestell about how the 'weather bomb' is affecting the Maritimes, and author Bruce Kemp about a similar storm that wreaked havoc in 1913.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Julian Uzielli.