Before That Winter Shelter Gets Into Full Swing, Read This

I grew up in Northern Ontario. I understand winter cold. I know first hand the piercing pain of a northern wind sweeping across Lake Superior and taking the breath from you. My brother and I used to have to shovel our driveway and we would describe the degree of cold outside of whether or not snot would freeze when you breathed in deep. And just to make my cold weather credentials (and hoser-esque Canadiana) even more well known, we heated our house with wood, so I know what it is like to be in the middle of the night in a frozen abode until more logs got on the fire. I hate the cold. I know winter is a heartless bastard. I wish winter did not happen, and the more I travel to places like Florida, Southern California and Hawai’i, the more I realize how smart people are for living there.

So knowing the pain of cold, why is it that I am not a huge fan of winter shelter? In a nutshell, it is because people are making an emotional decision on how to address homelessness, not one driven by data. I have felt this way in my reading and research for the past decade or so. Then two events over the past week or so have solidified my opinion further.

In one instance, I was in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario for their community forum on homelessness on September 25, 2015. They presented data on the winter response to homelessness historically and over the past year as they have phased out their winter response. What the data clearly showed is that the regular shelter system could absorb the impacts of a winter shelter, and that many of the people that had been using the winter shelter were merely moving from the “regular” shelter to the winter shelter – it was not a huge population of otherwise unsheltered people making use of the winter shelter. Then on September 28, 2015 I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. O’Connell speak again in New Hampshire where he presented even more data that has me convinced now more than ever before that the push to enhance shelter options in the winter is not going to do the things that people thinks it does. What kills people that live outdoors in places like northern states and Canada isn’t hypothermia. Even when we have experienced things like the polar vortex in recent years, extreme cold weather has injured people, but it does not kill them on mass. Instead, what is killing people living outside on mass are things like cancer and heart disease. To paraphrase Dr. O’Connell and his research, these are the things brought about from years of hard living, not from being exposed to the elements. And lest you think that the winter shelter is preventing injury related to things like frostbite, there was some compelling images shared by Dr. O’Connell proving that those folks are staying outside and not even accessing winter shelter.

To me, it begs several questions that I think must be considered locally before you put out a whack of money into a winter shelter, and rally volunteers and a community response at a large scale:

  1. If the issue is one of shelter space, shouldn’t your community have adequate shelter space year round, and not just the winter?
  2. If you are concerned about health and welfare, why not invest more in preventative and routine health care, as well as home health care for people that move from homelessness into housing?
  3. Is the matter really one of sensationalized media attention and knee jerk policy response rather than thoughtful analysis and planning? While one person that is homeless dying from exposure is too many, is that one person’s life worth more than the 30 that died from cancer or heart disease?
  4. In many communities more people that are homeless die from violence and other disease in the summer than hypothermia in the winter, so why are we not doing more in the summer?
  5. If the people that are using winter shelter generally are NOT the completely street entrenched population, but rather are episodic and other shelter users, are you actually designing a response for the population you think is served by your response?
  6. With so many winter responses being facilities that were not designed to be shelter, have you thought through the ramifications of providing accommodation in a setting where you are more likely to be spreading communicable disease because of insufficient air turnover and cots/mats that are in close proximity to one another?
  7. Is your winter shelter part of the professional shelter response in your community – or do you run it through well intentioned faith groups and volunteers? Is the quality of service of your winter response at least equal to the quality of service provided in other shelters?
  8. If your winter response was to assist those that you perceive as the most vulnerable, could the same money and staffing been used to house and support these individuals rather than providing them temporary housing?
  9. What is the outcome that you intend to achieve with your winter shelter…what difference does it really make at the end of the day? (Compared to what difference you think it makes.)
  10. How does a bandaid measure of a winter response fit into your pursuit of ending homelessness?


Think about it.


Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

5 Responses to “Before That Winter Shelter Gets Into Full Swing, Read This”

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  1. Angela says:

    Thank you for articulating that.

    • Edwina says:

      Thanks Iain. I heard your reference to this last week and was interested in hearing more. Thank you for elaborating.

  2. The winter of 2013-2014 was particularly harsh for us (not by Canadian standards, by any means) and consequently, we did have a large number of people who accessed our Cold Weather Shelter system that didn’t get any other services during the year. It could have been an incredible opportunity to get data on people we don’t usually see. But it wasn’t.
    1. Our CWS “system” uses volunteer churches first and then if all that space is filled, we open a city Rec center that takes all the rest, however many that is.
    2. Some of the churches are very picky about who they will and won’t shelter, so regular paid shelter staff has to check each person’s record to assign them to the “right” venue.
    3. It takes so much staff time complete the venue assignments, they don’t do any checking on client data, let alone doing any kind of intake.
    4. We were able to get some data collection done on the night of our PIT count, but only after engaging in a bunch of enabling behaviors that allowed the shelter management to avoid recognizing that they have a problem. Essentially, we gathered volunteers to provide extra person-hours that night. I don’t *think* we had to shift volunteers from the unsheltered count.
    5. Of course, because we only do one PIT per year, the missing data from the cold weather shelter really hit the “Missing this information” fields in our AHAR Emergency Shelter-Individual data shell. Fortunately I was able to convince our data liaison to accept that since most of them were just barely over the 5% threshold.

    The Executive Director of the non-profit running the city shelter took a lesson from this experience, but it wasn’t that they needed to completely overhaul their Cold Weather Shelter process. It was that the CoC could be bullied into providing extra help, at least on PIT night.

    As someone who also grew up with real cold, I’ve always thought our criteria for when we opened CWS (it’s a day-to-day decision, if you can believe that) were nonsense. I doubt the city would close it completely, but maybe we can convince people to redesign it.

  3. Port Townsend, WA says:

    Well you see sir, churchy people can “volunteer at the winter shelter” so they
    get merit points to get into heaven, without actually having to HELP the
    PEOPLE who are homeless. Neoliberalism at its finest.

    • I won’t claim that such people don’t exist, just like I won’t claim there are no conservatives who are devoid of compassion. I will claim that there is a general failure–across whatever dividing lines we like to draw–to see the full scope of the problem, and the deeper causes. There are churches who appear to be working on a model that all people experiencing homelessness just need a little help to get past this bad time and back on their feet. And there are others who appear to working on a model that all people experiencing homelessness suffer from some kind of character flaw and what they really need is for people to quit enabling their deviant behavior with “handouts” (broadly defined as “any kind of assistance”).

      And of course the reality is a mixture of the two plus a plethora of variations between those two extremes. Both approaches have their place (okay, maybe not the second), but neither is “the” solution. Ideally each person in housing crisis would be evaluated and a customized plan would be put in place to provide them with whatever types of intervention would be most helpful.

      I think there is value in a “winter shelter” that provides another opportunity to engage with people who need better housing, especially if they aren’t willing or able to engage with the services system in any other way.

      On good thing about the stereotypical attitudes around winter shelter is greater willingness to lower barriers. So for instance a community that would otherwise refuse shelter because of violent behavior etc. might be willing to look the other way when the weather is lousy.