Homelessness is never easy.

As many of our clients would attest, homelessness is perhaps the single most stressful experience a person could endure. The men and women we serve are dealing with unspeakable trauma. This often includes childhood abuse and neglect, the tragic death of a loved one, or battling a mental illness. Sometimes all of the above. The events that lead people to our doorstep are often equally traumatic. Imagine being thrown out on the street, being evicted from your apartment, having your home repossessed, or merely running out of couches to crash on.

Consider what it would feel like to go from mainstream to marginalized, often overnight. Now consider having to go through that during the coldest months of the year.

In Calgary, like most cities in Canada, summers are short and fleeting. The remainder of the year is a series of unpredictable cold snaps, freezing rain and snow. These miserable — and sometimes dangerous — conditions add a whole new dimension of pain, misery and uncertainty to an already stressed and vulnerable population.

It means shelters that border on full — even through the the warmest months — must now find extra space for hundreds more people to sleep. And while we 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, every year a small handful across the country die from exposure. Many more lose limbs, fingers, and toes due to frostbite.

When the temperature drops, we are often asked what can be done to help the men and women we serve. 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, the body loses heat much faster than it can be produced. Shivering stops. Breathing becomes slow and shallow. Confusion, drowsiness and slurred speech set in. The person begins to lose coordination. The pulse weakens and, eventually, the person will lose consciousness. Immediate measures must be taken to raise their core body temperature. If not, 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 exposure lasts, the greater chance the individual has of irreparable damage. If left untreated, this can ultimately result in infection or amputation.

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 among our client population, 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 men and women experiencing homelessness. It means feeling stuck in a particular place, with too much time to ruminate on their past experiences and hardships. It also means a decrease in demand for unskilled labour. Many of our clients also deal with debilitating physical ailments such as arthritis, which worsen in cold weather. This affects their mobility and ability to find outdoor work, which would help them socialize more.

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, blankets, towels, and work boots 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 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. Even if you are unsure, it is always better to err on the side of caution and call for help. You don’t want to find out later that person fell gravely ill or passed away.

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 is incredibly helpful. Particularly when conditions outside are less than hospitable, and sometimes far from survivable. Help us ensure every Calgarian has access to the food, clothing and shelter they need. Share this knowledge with your family and friends.

4. Acknowledge them

Homelessness is not just a physical experience. It is a social one as well. Our clients carry the label of being different — with all the stereotypes and prejudices that come along with that. They are cast aside and marginalized. This leads them to feeling like they are almost “sub-human” or invisible. Simple things like making eye contact or a quick “hi, how are you?” can make all the difference in their day.

It may not change their lives, but sometimes the smallest gesture can have the most profound effect.