“It’s been 20 years since I slept outside in the winter…but when we get temperatures like this, I can still feel that cold. It’s a pain filled cold. Empty… yeah, I still feel that,” Manny shared with us a couple of days ago at one of Sanctuary’s drop-ins.
With the terrible cold snaps we’ve had this winter in London, and temperatures lower than 30 degrees below zero at various times, we have been asked so many times and by so many people, how do your friends survive out there? It’s a great question, and the answer is somewhat complicated.
If you’ve ever been to a Sanctuary drop-in, you will likely know that the majority of our people do not physically sleep outside on the streets every night. The living conditions of our friends vary drastically. Some people attend our drop-in even though they might live in really nice houses. These houses just don’t feel like home. The largest portions of our people live in shelters or government-subsidized housing. Others are couch surfing. These people have a place to sleep at night. On particularly cold days, when there are cold weather alerts, the city will open up ‘warming sites’ at certain community centers, where anyone can go, free of charge to stay warm during daytime hours. This is particularly helpful for people staying at shelters where they are required to be out of their rooms during the daytime.
Still, roughly 5-10% of the people we serve will struggle to survive sleeping outside: under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in phone booths, hidden in storage units, and alleyways. I heard on the radio station one morning in January this year that it was -42 degrees with the wind chill, and they warned that, “Any exposed skin could be severely damaged within 5 minutes”. How do stay alive trying to sleep in conditions like that without the proper equipment? The answer is quite simple. You don’t. You will not wake up when your body is that cold.
So what do our friends do? On nights like this, we have learned that some of our friends will feel like they have no other choice but to sign into a shelter, no matter how scared they are, or how hard they have resisted doing that in the past. But some of our friends have been so abused and hurt in the past that they cannot get themselves to go to a shelter. Often mental health plays a role here as they feel that going to a shelter would be making themselves vulnerable to be hurt again. Some fell like they would rather be dead. Others have been kicked out and banned from the shelters for previous negative interactions.
For these people, the game plan is simple. Keep moving. They will walk the streets all night long, trying to keep their blood flowing. When possible, they will walk from 24-hour coffee shop to 24-hour coffee shop and sit there until they are asked to leave. When morning comes they will hopefully find a community meal somewhere for breakfast and then quickly head over to a warming station, or to a public building such as a library, where they will hopefully find a few hours of rest.
The next and perhaps more important question is this: What can we do to support and care for these people? And, you might have guessed it, the answer to this question is even more complicated than the first. At Sanctuary, we believe there are no ‘quick fix’ solutions. We might begin by speaking to our local politicians. Make sure that they are aware of the pressing need of more housing. The waiting list for government subsidized housing is often over a few years long. We need houses.
But we need homes even more so. When we begin to look for the root causes of poverty, we find that the problem is often not a lack of money or other resources, but usually a lack of relationships and connection to other people. So what can we do to help? Get to know them! Come on down to a Sanctuary (or any other community) drop-in. Don’t just serve people. Sit down beside them and get to know who they really are… and allow them to get to know you too! Play cards and share a meal together. This is the beginning of connection, and hopefully the beginning of a journey of healing for all of us.
In the meantime, if you know someone has no place to go, and it might be a particularly cold night, try giving him or her a gift card to Tim Hortons. Just five or ten dollars will be enough so that they can buy a drink to stay warm, and maybe they won’t be asked to leave as quickly as if they came in without making a purchase.
Maybe we can begin to see this homeless problem not as an issue to be solved but instead to see friends, like Manny, that could use a little love. Maybe in the midst of it, you can admit you could use a little love too.