The trees have come down, the presents unwrapped, and the decorations packed into boxes. As another holiday season ends, we settle into the winter months. And for some, it’s anything but a wonderland.
“When you’re trying not to freeze to death, the winter is long and dark,” says Mike Toth, Director of Shelters at Mission Services of London. “The cold is a stumbling block to survival.”
The Men’s Mission in downtown London currently operates 76 emergency shelter beds for men who would otherwise be without a warm place to sleep and hearty meals.
When men come into the intake area at the Men’s Mission, they often don’t have the proper clothing for the winter weather. They need hats, mitts and socks, as well as winter coats. These items are hard to keep dry without access to laundry facilities; Mike notes that items like socks can be a one-time use item without a way to wash and dry them.
“If someone is sleeping on the streets, you hope they have shelter, a dry sleeping bag or dry clothes,” Mike says. “When you’re in an extreme cold situation, it becomes even more dangerous and uncomfortable when you get wet as well.”
“If a guy falls asleep in a snowbank, his coat will be soaked and that’s just as dangerous as the cold.”
Men’s Mission provides not only emergency shelter and meals, but access to laundry, showers, a resource centre with computers, and access to community resources.
“Without shelter, you don’t have access to food, water, bathing facilities… these are basics of life that many of us take for granted,” Mike says. It’s not just finding a warm place to sleep that is a challenge in the winter months. Many of the participants receiving support from the Men’s Mission are walking around town or reliant on public transportation.
“Our participants need to go to appointments or meetings to get the help they need,” Mike explains. “Walking on icy sidewalks or waiting on corners for buses that are delayed… you have the same concerns you’d have for your elderly parents.”
Not only is the winter hard on the body, but it takes a toll on the spirit as well. Between mixed feelings about the Christmas season and the anxiety about the cold weather, mental health can be affected as well.
“Our gentlemen are quite vulnerable and quite resourceful. They’ll do what they can to survive.”
Turning to the Men’s Mission is one way men can access the help they need to make it to the next day. But Mike notes, the need is great and growing every year.
“It used to be that we only reached capacity during the deepest, darkest parts of winter,” Mike explains. “But now we’re full all year around.”
“Although this looks like a huge building, it’s not big enough to help everyone who needs us.”
The Men’s Mission used to have 20 overflow beds available for those times of year when the demand was greatest. However, recent changes to comply with Covid-19 safety protocols have not only taken away those 20 extra beds, but reduced the maximum capacity of the emergency shelter from 111 beds to 76 beds.
These same protocols have resulted in other changes to the building’s uses, as access to laundry facilities, the resource centre and drop-in meals are being limited to only individuals staying the night.
“It’s a challenging time for sure,” Mike says. “It could be a long winter.”