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‘Tis the Season: The Sidewalk View

It’s Black Friday and you are disproportionately happy with the sweater you found on sale. As you walk out of the mall, the chill envelops you and you shiver into your coat collar, wishing you could toss on the toasty sweater immediately. Then it’s onto the bus, and you pretend you don’t notice the person sitting in the corner, worn windbreaker and worn face, cup and sign at their side.

With December approaching, a hesitant mist of festive cheer is descending on all of us, largely originating from those in our lives who insist on buying Christmas trees immediately after Remembrance Day. It can be difficult to remember that winter fundamentally means it’s going to be “really stupid cold outside” for a while and that this is worrisome news for those without housing. In movie trailers, you don’t hear “This holiday season, get ready for… hypothermia” because it’s not good business, it’s not applicable to the audience, and it’s most definitely not catering to the public eye, which prefers to keep this issue in the periphery where it’s unfortunate but not their problem.

It can be hard to remember that each person on the street may have a story with a beginning similar to yours. It’s a simple heuristic to believe that drug or alcohol abuse was their downfall, but in reality over 50% of homelessness is due to economic reasons such as unemployment, increased rent and low pay. Other reasons include leaving unsafe living situations, conflict with landlords, family breakdown, or having been institutionalized (in a hospital, jail, or rehab). We have a tendency to believe that this is a “just world” where people get what they deserve, and therefore the less fortunate are experiencing a form of karma. But frankly, we should all recall that life can just be a bitch.

While homeless shelters are an option, one must keep in mind that housing is limited and many homeless individuals are apprehensive about issues like bed bugs, theft and disease. Furthermore, shelters often aim to get people in and out as quickly as possible, which while understandable, can be alarming for those seeking a more stable and predictable arrangement. Whether due to lack of shelter space or personal choice, a good fraction of the homeless spend their nights outdoors where the cold exacerbates health conditions such as asthma and arthritis, and introduces risk of hypothermia and frostbite. We see it on the news every winter: Homeless man found dead under park bench. “Shame”, people say. “Could have been so easily prevented”.

Now’s the time to prevent it.

This holiday season, consider skipping the obligatory feel good winter flick that just came out and use those two hours to distribute or donate clothing, food or blankets. Consider volunteering at a shelter or even buying some grocery and restaurant gift cards to give out on the streets. Instead of Secret Santa and stressing about what to get for Joe from the lab, consider volunteering or donating items together for a group bonding experience. And if you don’t think you have the time to spare, say hello to the person in the corner with the worn windbreaker and worn face – Indicate to them I see you, you still matter. Regardless of circumstance, we are all human; if we’re “better” than other animals and compassion is inherently part of us, let’s prove it.

For a good place to start, check out:

Out of the Cold (includes locations outside of Hamilton):

Mission Services:

To learn more, explore:

Homeless Hub:

Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton:

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