There are some real questions to be addressed arising from the service failure for cold weather issues in Hamilton. Residents are rightly concerned to learn that homeless people were forced out into the cold for six hours in the worst storm in over a year just before Christmas. The warming centres at local recreation centres closed at 4pm, and the emergency overnight shelter was not to open until 10pm. Then the overnight shelter at the Hub was almost forced to close because the cold alert was cancelled and that triggered the cutoff of funds to operate the overnight centre. Luckily the action of the Hamilton Community Benefits network and generous residents resulted in enough money being raised to reopen the Hub in the nick of time.
Mayor Horwath has announced she will ask for a review of the entire cold weather alert policy. Let’s hope it doesn’t result in a round of scapegoating and virtue-signaling. This was a collective failure. Council voted to approve $125,000 in special funding for cold weather on December 1, which, if the system was working properly, should have at least avoided the near-closure of the Hub warming centre. If someone around the table had inquired what the emergency service would look like and how it would be triggered perhaps the gaps would have been identified. Those of us who work in the media also could have asked more questions.
Instead, for this publication at least, it wasn’t until the worst day of the storm that we went to the city website to see what emergency services were available, and it was only then that the six-hour gap in warm centre coverage was noted. Yes, the normal shelters were open, but as the city staff report December 1 noted, they were already overwhelmed and additional facilities were needed for those hard core cases who will not use shelters normally.
Hopefully the review will address a number of key issues:
- Ending cold alert: Where did we ever get the idea that anything above -15C or -20C windchill would trigger the cancellation of a cold weather alert? People can freeze to death at just below 0C.
- 24 hour coverage. If we are going to create warming places, they have to be available for 24 hours. We can’t be herding people out into the cold for 6 hours in freezing temperatures and 70KPH winds.
- Management. Nobody begrudges people taking Christmas vacations, but it appears there was nobody who felt they had the clear authority to make sure the Hub stayed open (a $3,000 decision) , or to order HSR buses as warming centres, or to reopen the rec centres. Somebody has to not only be in charge but to be seen as being in charge.
- Hamilton established extensive and largely successful homeless shelters during COVID. What happened to all those cots and blankets that might have made things more comfortable than sleeping on a floor?
Hopefully nobody lost their life during the current emergency, and if we get this right, a tragedy can be avoided in future. The number one responsibility of any government, before policing, before transit, is to make sure that the most unfortunate of our fellow humans can survive. Funding that service should be the first dollar we allocate, not what’s left after everything else.