As temperatures plummet, mobile health services become even more important for those who are weathering the cold in shelters.
It was around 20 degrees below zero when Amele Zewge-Teffera drove the Sherbourne Health Centre’s bus along a busy stretch of the Danforth last Thursday, slowing to a crawl near Main Street. Cars cruised past in the dark outside the vehicle, but the sidewalk in front of Heyworth House, a co-ed shelter tucked between a restaurant and a furniture store, was mostly quiet. “Ah,” Zewge-Teffera said, unsurprised. “Nobody’s outside.”
Funded by the Rotary Club of Toronto, the centre’s two health buses shuttle its staff, including volunteer nurses, to over a dozen sites throughout the city, where they meet with homeless people to provide medical advice, hand out basic supplies like toothpaste and shampoo, and make referrals to health-care providers. Sometimes, people will line up down the block to visit the bus. But on nights like last Thursday, the cold drives people inside, away from the vital advice and supplies that arrive with the bus.
Zewge-Teffera was accompanied by Taryl Bengershon, another health-bus staffer, who rose from her spot behind the driver’s seat. Exiting through the side door, which had frozen shut earlier in the evening, she slipped into Heyworth House to let a staffer know they’d arrived. The city was in the midst of a brutal cold stretch. And after the Toronto Star reported that December’s ice storm had left one homeless man dead, it seemed particularly important that people without permanent housing not miss an opportunity to check in with the bus staff.
The bus parks near homeless shelters, mostly, but Zewge-Teffera said they also visit Out of the Cold programs and drop-in centres. They also do significant outreach to sex workers, including a pilot project that wrapped in December, in which they offered pap smears to women. Zewge-Teffera said they’d continue it if they had the funding.
Within minutes of Bengershon exiting the shelter, a small group of people milled around outside the bus, waiting their turn. Dennis, recently released from prison and staying at Heyworth House, came for some winter gear. “I gotta get some long johns, some socks, some toques, and some gloves,” he said before boarding the bus. Bengershon noticed a cut underneath his nose, and the women gave him a subway token so he could go see a doctor the following day. A 46-year-old man came for socks, vitamins, and toothpaste. The bus provides harm-reduction supplies, too, and he quietly asked for a crack stem before heading back into the cold.
Inside the bus, which is built out of a Ford E-450 (basically a small RV), it feels like an expert Tetris player has been hard at work—supplies are stashed in every corner. As people filtered through, Zewge-Teffera and Bengershon flitted back and forth, peering into the cupboards and dropping things into white plastic bags for clients. A corkboard laden with posters concealed a small door, which swung open to reveal a stockpile of shampoo.
Like most people that night, Michael and Arielle, a couple for the past two years, came for warm clothing. “Those are nice!” said Michael, who’d ventured outside wearing socks and flip-flops, as he laid eyes on his new long underwear. “Those are Starter! Oh, my gosh.” Arielle was curious about the cold weather alert. At 22 years old and seven-and-a-half-months pregnant, she said she was only allowed to stay at Heyworth with Michael because of the cold weather. “I’m too pregnant and too young,” she said. (Heyworth is for those 24 and over, and staff were concerned because the building has a lot of stairs.)
Eventually, though, the city would lift the cold-weather alert (albeit temporarily), and the pair needed a plan. Michael, 29, was open to the idea of separating; Arielle wasn’t. “I’m really stubborn,” she said.
Visits to the bus are short, and Bengershon quickly ran through the options with Arielle: Did she have a nurse through the Homeless at Risk Prenatal program? (She did.) Had she considered Robertson House, the city shelter for pregnant women and mothers, or a family shelter? What about market-rent housing?
Michael liked the idea of Robertson House. The pair was trying to move to Regina, where Arielle’s mother lives, before their baby arrived. Bengershon nudged Arielle on Robertson House a bit more. “It’s a great place to be, because they also provide childcare,” she said. “Speak to your nurse about Robertson House, okay?” she added as they left. “They will let him come by—often.”
“That’d be awesome,” said Michael.
Cold hard truths
-15: Minimum overnight temperature required for the city to issue an extreme cold weather alert (extreme weather conditions are also a factor).
9: Extreme cold weather alerts during winter 2012–13.
7: Extreme cold weather alerts so far this winter.
-22: Overnight temperature last Thursday.
4,000: Approximate number of people staying at shelters last Thursday night.
5,219: Number of homeless people in Toronto in 2013, according to the city’s Street Needs Assessment.