One of the most “morally upsetting” nights of Maggie Helwig’s life was earlier this winter.
There was a man at Toronto’s Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, near Bathurst and College Street where she’s the priest and runs a drop-in program, who was “obviously unwell” and “couldn’t even get his socks on properly.”
The shelters were full. The only thing she could do was walk him out to the encampment near the church, wake up some people there, and ask them to take him into their tent for the night.
“It was a very very cold night but the warming centre wasn’t open,” Helwig recalls.
That man this past November was welcomed into someone’s tent. But Helwig said another individual died in a tent over Christmas, when there was a cold alert and warming centres were open, but very busy. The person was not in an encampment community at the time. Their friends are trying to honour their wishes for privacy.
As Hamilton expands access to warming centres, following a public outcry over a Christmas gap in services, advocates are calling for Toronto to do the same, and highlighting that temperatures don’t need to be super cold for people to die on the streets.
As it stands now, warming centres are “generally activated” when an Extreme Cold Weather Alert (ECWA) is issued by Toronto Public Health — when the temperature is forecasted to be -15 C or colder, or -20 with the wind chill — said a city spokesperson in an email.
“There may also be instances when the city decides to open warming centres independent of ECWA “out of an abundance of caution due to colder nighttime temperatures and forecasted wind chill values. For example, warming centres were open and accessible from December 23 at 7 p.m. until noon on December 28,” the spokesperson added.
The city is “aware of unconfirmed reports of the death of a person experiencing homelessness on or about Christmas Eve,” they said.
“The cause of death of people experiencing homelessness, and discovered outside at any time of year, is determined by the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario and only communicated to the next of kin.”
“Toronto used to do a lot more,” said Helwig of warming centres.
“Before the pandemic there actually was a whole network of warming centres all over the city.”
Now there are just three, all walk-ins, and they were “very crowded” over Christmas when they were open during the extreme cold temperatures.
Some of them closed because of the pandemic, some have become part of the 24 hour respite system, but what’s needed is a “low barrier flexible winter space,” she said.
“The need is just growing, and growing in every area all the time.”
The city of Hamilton announced on Wednesday expanded warming centre hours until the end of March, following public pressure.
Dr. Stephen Hwang, director of MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, said his team conducted a study in 2019 that showed about 70 per cent of injuries due to cold happen when the weather is warmer than -15 C.
“I don’t believe there’s evidence to support -15 as being the correct threshold. I suspect that it’s driven more by resource constraints than by anything else,” he said in an interview with the Star. There’s a need for shelter beds. But “on nights where it’s cold, there should be enough warming centres available that people can at least get out of the cold,” he added.