As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in the basement of the home where I’ve found stability for the past twenty years of my life. Clad in a new pair of pajama bottoms, an overpriced hoodie that reminds me of when I used to attend concerts frequently during my pre-COVID life, and a pair of fuzzy socks, I feel comfortable in candlelight after the first heavy snowfall of the season.

Some of the things that I’ve done to prepare for winter include winterizing my car, digging out an impressive collection of toques, mittens and scarves, making sure I have plenty of new books to read, and replenishing my stack of candles and bath bombs.

I can think back to one chilly January night a few years ago when I took the train to meet my mother when she got off work from Rogers Place at 7:00 pm so we could go for dinner and a movie at City Centre. We decided to walk, not wanting to deal with the stress of trying to find somewhere to park closer to the mall when the arena had a parking lot out back for employees. My mother had worked in this area for all my life, but my experience on this night was different from any of the other relatively happy and carefree times I’d visit my mom at work. Across the street was Boyle Street Community Centre. Despite the cold and the time of night, there were approximately two dozen homeless people sitting on the sidewalk outside of the door. It was clear that they would probably spend the night there, settled in under blankets or jackets or whatever else they had. This was the first glimpse of homelessness in the winter that really struck me.

I’m writing this from a place where I have the opportunity to comfortably spend time on a computer to write, where I can buy new clothes that are warm and cozy enough for my snow day expectations, where I’m able to own a car and have my very own book collection. When I’ve had a long or particularly cold day, I can come home and run a hot bath with scented candles and a face mask that might not actually do anything to help my skin (jury’s still out), but makes me feel like I’m a self-care queen—and that’s what really matters to me in those situations.

In Canada, more than 235,000 people experience homelessness each year. Between 28 and 34% of Canadians who live in homeless shelters are Indigenous, and 75% of Canadians who face homelessness suffer from some sort of mental illness. On a local level, at the time when I’m writing this, the population of homeless people in Edmonton has grown to more than double what it was at the end of 2019. The city is struggling to keep up with the amount of beds and shelter that is necessary to take care of this growing population. Mayor Sohi is worried that without the city creating at least 350 more beds in shelter spaces, there will be a population of Edmontonians who are forced to sleep outside during the winter. To make matters worse, there are 720 emergency shelter beds that are being funded currently, but that funding is set to run out at the end of November.

The problem for me is that winter has already come. Edmonton saw 15 to 25 centimeters of snow on November 16th. The snowfall and wind effectively packed my car between my house and fence and I couldn’t get my back door opened until a family member came to shovel the snow away. In these conditions, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like without a home or to have to spend my nights sleeping outside due to a lack of emergency shelter in place. While I am lucky enough that I can hardly imagine what it would be like, I know that 80 people in Canada die each year from over-exposure in the cold.

The municipal and provincial governments are currently fighting over which one of them should be responsible for funding and creating more space for emergency shelters. While they try to figure out where funding will come from, those 350 missing beds mean 350 people potentially sleeping outside, a number that will increase to over 1200 when funding for the other 720 beds runs out.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do as individuals in order to create the shelter that these people need. But, there are ways that we can make the lives of people who are hungry, cold, and without shelter this winter a tiny bit easier.

You can make monetary donations to:

  • Hope Mission to help provide meals to homeless Edmontonians for as little as $2.70 per meal.
  • The Mustard Seed, where your donation will help to provide meals, winter clothes, health and wellness services, employment counselling and shelter.
  • WIN House which provides emergency services to women and children who are fleeing from abuse.

If you are unable to make a monetary donation this season, you can donate in-kind donations including outdoor equipment such as blankets, jackets and sleeping bags, adult clothing, and toiletries such as body wash, menstrual supplies and shampoo and conditioner to Boyle Street Community Centre. You can also donate time and kindness by volunteering at one of Edmonton’s many homeless shelters, whether alone or with a group. But, if none of these options are feasible, perhaps one of the most important things we can do is be a good neighbour. If you see tenting or belongings that seem out of place, leave them alone, that could be someone’s only form of shelter from the cold.

Evaluate your thinking when you encounter a homeless person and remind yourself that homeless people are people.

Homelessness is a condition that anyone can fall victim to. Resolve to only call the police when there’s an emergency, and to call crisis diversion (211) when necessary. Whatever interaction you have with the less fortunate in your area, the winter months are especially hard on all of us, and we can all benefit from taking any small steps toward being a more empathetic neighbour and community member.