Surviving winter without a home

By Jeremy Warren, The Starphoenix,  November 19, 2014 -

Harry McLeod has heard plenty of stories of people sleeping outside in cold weather. He even has a few of his own.

McLeod, 38, is from Stanley Mission and now lives in Saskatoon at The Lighthouse, a shelter and assisted living facility. He's slept outside in the past, but did not have to endure the deep freeze of January or February.

"Right now, it's not so bad.

But it gets bad," he said in an interview. "In Lloydminster, I stayed outside for a week when it was -10 C. It was cold, but I stayed warm enough. I wouldn't want to be out there in -30 C for a week."

McLeod didn't know Jerry Peequaquat, the 42-year-old homeless man found dead in an abandoned semi truck last weekend. A relative who found Peequaquat said the man possibly froze to death and had earlier refused to stay in a shelter.

On Tuesday, the provincial coroner finished an autopsy and found no apparent cause of death or signs of foul play. A cause of death could be determined pending further tests, which include a toxicology report, chief coroner Kent Stewart said.

Whether or not Peequaquat froze to death, there are people who do, McLeod said.

"I've heard of people freezing to death in an alley with mouthwash in their hand," he said. "It's terrible to die like that. I hope those people staying outside find help."

McLeod arrived in Saskatoon four years ago after living in Lloydminster, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. Before finding The Lighthouse, he stayed in a cheap hotel and a rooming house until he got evicted from both. If he wasn't in one of those places, he'd sleep outside, couch surf or get arrested so he could stay in a police cell, he said.

"It's a place to stay for the night instead of being out in the cold."

McLeod said an addiction to hydromorphone led to his transient life and run-ins with the law. He's hoping his stay at The Lighthouse improves his life.

"It's tough to organize my life because I'm always thinking about the next fix," he said.

Homeless people find ways to stay warm in the cold months, he said - they can stay up all night at a 24-hour coffee shop, get arrested, or simply gather what few supplies they can to sleep outside.

"I asked for blankets at the Salvation Army - they smelled alcohol on my breath and wouldn't let me stay - and went down to the river and slept," he recalled.

Waking up cold under a bridge or in trees along the river, people will usually quickly find a place to warm up, such as breakfast at the Lighthouse, he said. They might spend time in a public library or a soup kitchen.

McLeod said he didn't always know people slept outside in the winter.

"I didn't think it was true, but it is. You can't even make a fire out there, or the city or someone will make a big deal out of it."

A United Way homelessness count found 379 homeless people in Saskatoon in September 2012, including 72 people who were sleeping outside.

The agency and 20 community-based organizations developed a cold weather strategy for when the temperature drops below -18 C or reaches -40 C with the wind chill.

They co-ordinate efforts to get people off the street during severe weather, either locating people sleeping outside or by relaxing shelter rules to get people indoors. Last winter, 17 alerts were issued and everyone who needed a warm place to stay got one.

© Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post

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