A shivering woman, without a jacket and her pants soaking wet up to her knees, slept in “the bush” earlier this week, in subzero weather.
“She was just standing there, cold. She had bare hands, nothing on her head,” downtown community steward Margie Stark said, baffled that the woman hadn’t been seriously harmed as a result of the cold.
This is just part and parcel of homeless people’s struggle to stay out of elements every winter, Stark said.
With their shelters almost consistently full, YWCA Prince Albert executive director Donna Brooks notes that they often have to turn people away.
These beds total 90, including eight longer-term transitional beds.
“If we have no beds, we’ll keep them warm in our lobby until we can get Mobile Crisis or city police to help us,” she said, adding that they by no means send people back into the cold to freeze.
There’s always some place indoors for people to spend the night.
“If we can get them, we can make the connections to keep them warm,” she said.
A potentially dangerous problem arises with people that aren’t brought to the attention of the YWCA and other organizations.
“People are out there sleeping in the winter,” she said. “These are the most at risk — the people we don’t know about.”
City police take special care during the winter months in spotting at-risk people outdoors in the element.
“Our main focus is public safety,” Sgt. Kelly McLean said. “We’re always looking for homeless people at risk, and as the temperature drops we’re more vigilant.”
The police have several known gathering spots in mind while making their patrols, McLean said, but people can be found pretty well anywhere.
“Like everyone, they try to seek warmth, but when alcohol and drug use is in the mix, they don’t always make that connection,” he said.
Police aren’t all places at all times, so vigilant community members come into play as well, he said.
“If anybody’s out there and they see someone in distress, we encourage them strongly to call us,” he said, noting that their non-emergency line at 953-4222 is the best number to call, assuming danger isn’t imminent, in which case 911 should be used.
We’re always looking for homeless people at risk, and as the temperature drops we’re more vigilant. - Sgt. Kelly McLean
“Don’t be afraid to report it,” Brooks said. “Phone the police — phone somebody. That person’s in danger. Don’t just step over them, that’s someone’s son or daughter, aunt or uncle.”
It’s relatively easy for people to suffer from hypothermia, even in temperatures close to zero, Parkland Ambulance Care director of public relations Lyle Karasiuk said.
People who find themselves sleeping outdoors typically have other priorities than getting flu shots or basic medical care, exasperating the risks they take in braving the cold, he said.
“We see a number of them with illnesses related to living outdoor and not taking care of themselves,” Karasiuk said. “It’s a complex issue.”
Homeless people are clever and know how to work the system, Stark said.
“One fellow said that it’s better in jail, so he said, ‘I’ll just do a crime so I can go in jail so I’m warm,’” she said.
Others drink to get into the brief detox centre or feign ailments to get taken to the hospital, she alleges.
These options come at a much greater cost than what Stark is advocating for — a new location that accepts everyone without question.
Any old building would do, so long as it’s warm, she said. Cots could be set up, accompanied by a washer and dryer to ensure people wake up in the morning with dry clothes.
“All they need is a warm place to sleep,” she said, motioning to a hallway in her store, indicating that even that would beat sleeping in the -40C weather that tends to greet residents every winter.
Stark owns and operates Margie’s Nu-Image on Central Avenue. She uses proceeds from the business to purchase clothes and other necessities for those in the community who most need them.