Homelessness is never easy.

As many of our clients would attest, it is perhaps the single most stressful experience anyone could go through. Keep in mind that these are people who have dealt with unspeakable trauma; anything from being molested or abandoned as a child, to witnessing the death of a loved one, to being overcome by mental illness, and sometimes all of the above.  But the idea of being thrown out on the street, of being evicted or having their home repossessed, or merely running out of couches to crash on means that our clients go from mainstream to marginalized, often overnight.

In Calgary, like most cities in Canada, summers are short and fleeting – the remainder of the year rife with unpredictable cold snaps, freezing rain and snow. These often miserable and sometimes un-inhabitable conditions add a whole new dimension of pain, misery and uncertainty to an already stressed and neglected population.

It means shelters that border on full through the the warmest months must find extra space to sleep hundreds more in hopes that nobody gets left behind. And while they try tirelessly to ensure that nobody remains out in the cold – the sad and sobering reality is that even on the most frigid nights, some do. And as hard as we try to prevent it, each year a small handful across the country die from hypothermia due to exposure. Even more lose limbs and appendages due to frostbite.

So around this time of year all of us tend to ask what can be done to help these people. We wonder what the greatest risks are to the homeless population once the mercury starts to plummet.

Here we attempt to address these questions and hope to inspire you to do what you can to help those who need it the most.

The Greatest Risks:

1. Hypothermia

Once the temperature drops below -10 (and without appropriate insulation), the body’s ability to produce and maintain heat gets overshadowed by its rate of heat loss. Shivering begins to stop; breathing becomes slow and shallow; confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech set in; the person begins to feel a loss of coordination; ultimately the pulse weakens and the person will lose consciousness. If immediate measures are not taken to raise the person’s core body temperature, they will die within minutes.

2. Frostbite

During prolonged cold exposure, particularly with a harsh wind-chill, the body begins to restrict the blood vessels furthest from the core in an attempt to conserve heat in the vital organs. Cells begin dying off from a combination of freezing due to the cold weather and lack of oxygen to those tissues. The longer the tissue is exposed or blood-flow and oxygen are restricted, the greater chance the individual has of irreparable damage that can ultimately result in amputation or gangrene if the condition is not immediately treated.

3. Depression

With daylight hours at a minimum and temperatures often too cold to venture outside in the sunlight for very long – the risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder increases. Coupled with an already increased rate of depression and severely decreased access to appropriate treatment, the consequences can be serious. Other risk factors for depression include decreased exercise, a general feeling of hopelessness, and a lack of social supports around the holiday season.

4. Loneliness

Even without diagnosed depressive symptoms or disorders, the loneliness and isolation of the winter season can be difficult for the homeless. It often means increased time to ruminate on their past experiences and hardships, feelings of being stuck in a particular place, a decrease in demand for unskilled labour, and therefore difficulty finding gainful employment. Many of our clients also deal with debilitating physical ailments such as arthritis, which worsens in cold weather. It affects their mobility and ability to find outdoor work, which would help them continue socializing.

How you can help:

1. Donate

With the increased strain on resources that inevitably occurs in the winter months, shelter services rely more than ever on the generous donations of residents across the city. Everything from money, to winter clothing, hygiene items, and non-perishable food items, to your time allow us to continue providing comprehensive care and support to our clients – especially through our busiest months of the year.

2. Be vigilant

If you see a homeless person who you suspect is at risk of developing either hypothermia or frostbite, don’t hesitate to contact emergency services and let them know of your concerns. Depending on what that person is dealing with or the potential state of their hypothermia, they may not be aware of the imminent danger they are in. It’s always better to be safe and inform someone of your suspicions, than to hesitate and later find out that person has gotten seriously ill or passed away from exposure. If the person does not appear to be in distress, calling the DOAP team [(403) 998-7388] will allow a trained, qualified response to evaluate the situation and provide the care and access to shelter they need.

3. Be knowledgeable

Simply being aware of (and compassionate toward) the struggles men and women face on the streets through the winter can make all the difference. Sharing that knowledge with your family and friends makes us all stronger in our efforts to ensure that every person is appropriately fed, clothed and sheltered – particularly when conditions outside are less than hospitable, and sometimes less than survivable.

4. Acknowledge them

When a person becomes homeless they become viewed “different” from the rest of society. This immediate distancing can lead our clients to feeling and being treated as almost “sub-human”. Simple things like making eye contact or a quick “hi, how are you?” can really make all the difference in their day. It may not change their lives, but sometimes the smallest gesture can have the most profound effect.