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February 4, 2002
Extreme cold weather alert called
Toronto Community and Neighbourhood Services --- Toronto's Director of
Hostel Services has issued the first extreme cold weather alert of the
2001/2002 winter season to help get homeless people in from the cold. The alert
is effective for two days - today, February 4, and tomorrow, February 5.

An alert goes into effect when Environment Canada:
  • predicts a temperature of -15 degrees Celsius or lower, without wind chill
  • issues a wind chill warning for outdoor activity for people in the Toronto area
  • predicts extreme weather conditions, such as a blizzard or ice storm.

Under the alert the following extra services are available to help homeless
  • additional emergency sleeping spaces in Toronto hostels/shelters
  • increased street patrols by Anishnawbe Health Street Patrol to reach homeless people
  • distribution of TTC tickets through over 50 drop-in centres and outreach agencies to help homeless people reach shelters
  • emergency transportation through the Canadian Red Cross for homeless people trying to reach services/shelters.

The STREET Helpline service at 416-392-3777 also operates 24 hours a day to let
homeless people and front-line workers know where to find shelter and other
services. Members of the public can also call this number if they see a
homeless person sleeping outside.

This is the sixth year the extreme cold weather plan has been in place. Last
year, alerts were in effect for 12 days. "These alerts are a temporary measure
to help us ensure that homeless people across Toronto have access to shelter
when their lives could hang in the balance," said John Jagt, Director of Hostel
Services with Toronto Shelter, Housing and Support.

"The alerts do not alter the need for solutions to homelessness in Toronto. But
by co-ordinating our efforts and temporarily increasing some services, it is at
least one step in providing critical services to some of our most vulnerable

Mr. Jagt chairs a designated alert team that meets regularly throughout the
winter to monitor conditions on the street. Team members include
representatives from Toronto Shelter, Housing and Support, Toronto Public
Health, Emergency Medical Services, the Out of the Cold Program, STREET
Helpline, Anishnawbe Street Patrol, Youthlink Innercity, Toronto Red Cross and
the Toronto Police Service.

Members of the public and businesses who wish to donate blankets, food and
services, or volunteer their time throughout the winter, are invited to call
the following numbers:

Money:United Way of Greater Toronto416-777-2001
Clothing:Chill Out416-934-1227
Food:Daily Bread Food Bank416-203-0050
Time:Community Information Toronto416-397-INFO

Handling the cold and hypothermia
  • Maintain a heated environment (City law requires landlords to maintain an adequate heat level of 20°C/68°F between September 15 and June 1 of each year)
  • Wear layers of warm, dry clothing including hat and gloves
  • Cover exposed skin surfaces as protection from frostbite (numbness, red-white nose, chin, fingers, forehead, stiff cheeks); warm affected areas gradually by wrapping or placing next to warm skin; do not rub
  • Be aware of hypothermia (body temperature of 35°C/95°F or less)
  • Signs include stiff muscles, puffy face, slurred speech, shivering uncontrollably, slowed breathing, poor physical condition and mental confusion. If these signs are recognized, call 911.
  • Drink non-alcoholic beverages such as tea, coffee, hot chocolate or soup
  • Maintain good nutrition and get plenty of rest
  • Prescription drugs may increase vulnerability to cold. Check with your doctor or pharmacist
  • Be aware of elderly and disabled people living alone; offer assistance
  • It is dangerous to use an oven as a heating device. All space heaters are a fire risk if used improperly
  • If you are a homeless person who is at risk in severely cold weather, call the STREET Helpline at 416-392-3777 to help you find shelter and services

Extreme cold weather alerts

Q. Who monitors the weather?

A. Toronto Hostel Services monitors weather forecasts daily from November 15 to
April 15.

Q. What exactly happens during a cold weather alert?

A. The approach depends on the types of services needed at the time. However,
there is a core response for each alert.

1. The Director of Hostel Services calls an alert to increase services to
homeless people when Environment Canada predicts the following conditions:

a) daily predicted low of -15 degrees Celsius without wind chill; or
b) the wind chill reaches the level at which Environment Canada issues a
warning for outdoor activity for people in the Toronto area; (in technical
terms this occurs when the wind chill and the temperature produce a wind chill
factor over 1800 watts per square metre); or
c) extreme weather conditions, such as a blizzard or ice storm.

2. Members of the designated alert team advise the Director of Hostel Services
on the number of people sleeping outside, and the availability of hostel beds.
Extra services usually include the following:
a) Toronto Hostel Services notifies shelters that an alert has been declared
and opens extra spaces in shelters across the City of Toronto, if necessary.
b) Toronto Hostel Services advises shelters of extra services they could
provide, e.g., extra food, clothing, leniency in curfews.
c) The Out of the Cold volunteer program adds extra space and meals to its
overnight program if necessary.
d) The number of street patrol workers is increased to get word to homeless
people about the extra services. Extra services may include more shelter
spaces, warm clothing, blankets, food and transportation.
e) TTC tokens are given to homeless people trying to reach services/hostels.
f) Drop-in centres are given TTC tokens for homeless people wanting to get to a
g) The Canadian Red Cross and Na Me Res provide emergency transportation to
homeless people trying to reach services/hostels.

The Community Information Centre operates its STREET Helpline 24 hours a day
(416-392-3777) from November 15 to April 15 to provide information to homeless
people on services and overnight shelter.

Q. Does this program mean homeless people will not sleep, and possibly die, on
the streets in severe weather?

A. The enhancement of services should result in fewer people sleeping outside
in very severe weather. However, some homeless people may not want to accept
help until they have established a trusting relationship with staff or outreach
workers. There is no guarantee no one will die because of these extra services.

Q. Will homeless people who are lying in the streets be picked up and taken to

A. There will be no forced removal of homeless people. However, trained street
outreach workers will encourage homeless people to go to a shelter, and will
help them get there by arranging transportation or TTC tokens.

Q Why not just pick them up and bring them to shelters?

A. Forced removal is usually counterproductive. It can be seen as abusive and
could result in homeless people retreating from services that have helped them
in the past. Outreach workers contacting homeless people during extreme cold
weather will come from agencies that have established relationships with them.
This should result in more homeless persons voluntarily coming into temporary
shelter. Also, shelters have no authority to confine people who are brought in
without consent.

Q. Why does the Director of Hostel Services call an alert at -15 Celsius?

A. There is no clear medical evidence on what constitutes extreme and
potentially harmful weather. Factors such as wind, snow, clothing, overall
health and alcohol levels combine to create a potentially harmful situation.
For some people, hypothermic injury or death can occur at temperatures as high
as +5 degrees Celsius. The -15 Celsius temperature was chosen after a review of
the weather conditions that preceded the deaths of three homeless people in
1995, and of severe winter weather conditions between 1992 and 1996.

Q. If the temperature stays at -15 or lower longer than expected is the alert

A. An extreme cold weather alert is a short-term, emergency response. It is not
sustainable over an extended period of time and it is not intended to replace
longer-term solutions to problems faced by homeless people. Extended services
are not likely to last longer than a few days.

Q. What should the public do to help when an alert is called?

A. Volunteers and donations are needed throughout the year, but the public
should not call specific agencies to offer help during an alert as they won't
have time to deal with a flood of calls. Most volunteer services require their
volunteers to be trained, so it's really not useful for people to start calling
in the middle of an alert. The same goes for donations of food, clothing, etc.
Anyone wanting to help throughout the year can call Community Information
Toronto at 416-397-INFO for information on volunteering and donating.

Q. How many homeless people are there?

A. The Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force found that 106,000 tenant
households face severe affordability problems because they pay more than half
of their income on rent. More than 30,000 people are expected to use emergency
hostels in 2001 in the City of Toronto.

Q. How much does the extreme cold weather alert program cost?

A. The City of Toronto is contributing $30,000 this year for the Cold Weather
Alert program, which was established in 1995 to help homeless people. The money
goes to selected drop-ins, hostels, street patrol and telephone services for
extra staff outreach during the alert, transportation, crisis intervention,
security, blankets, food, cleaning services, etc., as well as on volunteer and
staff training. The City also contributes funds through expanded hostel space
and funds for enhanced services. Other resources include staff time from
Toronto Community and Neighbourhood Services.

Q. Where did the extreme cold weather initiative come from?

A. This strategy, first implemented in the winter of 1996/97, arose from a June
1996 report of the Homeless Emergency Action Task Force (HEAT) to respond to
the increased number of homeless people who need services and the erosion of
federal and provincial funding for services for vulnerable citizens. It was
developed in consultation with social service agencies, volunteers, homeless
people and government representatives.

Q. Homeless people are at risk all year round. Will this strategy be used at
other times
of the year?

A. This particular program is intended to address only one part of the range of
issues and problems faced by homeless people, and is the result of a directive
by the former City of Toronto Council to come up with strategies to deal with
extreme cold weather. Work continues year-round to provide services to homeless
people. Protocols also exist to ensure that homeless people have increased
access to critical services during heat alerts in the summer months.

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