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Published December 1, 2023

Homeless people seek shelter, warmth during winter; RVH's ER sees increase

RVH

Winter weather is on the way, and those who are homeless are seeking shelter and warmth.

Hospital emergency departments (ERs) could be seen as a place for reprieve from the cold if they're not already being accessed for medical treatment.

A recent study found that non-urgent ER visits by homeless people increased by 24 per cent across Ontario.

The study looked at data documenting ER visits from the winter of 2018-19 to last winter (ending March 31, 2023). 

In Toronto hospitals, cold-weather ER visits by homeless people rose 68 per cent through that period.  

In Barrie, Ray Howald, emergency department manager at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), says they notice something similar during the colder months.

"I think we see an increase year-over-year of patients who are coming to the emergency department that are seeking shelter from the cold," Howald told Barrie 360. "We don't track those numbers specifically, so it's hard for us to quantify what those numbers are but I think anecdotally, yes, we do see an increase."

For those with no fixed address, there's more potential for exposure to cold weather - leading to possible frostbite or hypothermia.

"This time of year ... we would see more weather-related presentations," said Howald. "If a patient comes in with frostbite for example, or some other type of presentation, we would take that seriously and investigate that presentation and treat them appropriately."

Carrie Stoner, integrated crisis services manager at RVH, runs a team of crisis workers who work with patients who present with mental health and or addiction concerns.

"My team does a full biopsychosocial assessment for patients and then provides clinical impressions to the emergency room physician who then determines their disposition," said Stoner. "Our primary role is assessing for serious mental illness and risk."

Stoner added that they also provide patients with appropriate clothing for the weather if needed.

"We're lucky enough to have staff here at RVH who have donated clothing," said Stoner. "We make sure they have warm socks, we have boots donated, we have jackets."

Stoner says communication between RVH and other organizations in Barrie, such as the Busby Centre and Elizabeth Fry Society, is key, and ongoing through monthly meetings.

"It's called the Community Homelessness Service Providers Meeting, and it is made up of RVH staff from the emergency department, from our mental health department, and from our addictions department, and Busby, (Elizabeth) Frye, police, and paramedics," said Stoner.

She says the meeting entails updating shelter lists and warming centre information, and discussing any changes with services.

"With the cold weather recently, there's been an addition of some shelter beds. So, we update our list, which is accessible to everyone within the hospital," said Stoner.

"We make sure that everyone has up-to-date information so that when we do see patients that require shelter or housing support, we get them connected with the right agency in the community."

- With files from The Canadian Press

Banner image captured via RVH's Facebook page

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