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211 distress calls due to cold weather more than doubled over last January in Edmonton

Boyle Street, Hope Mission crisis teams swamped as CMHA fielded 1,975 cold weather-related calls last month, compared to 932 in January 2017

Sindi Addorisio, assistant manager of outreach and support services at Boyle Street.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Sindi Addorisio, assistant manager of outreach and support services at Boyle Street.

This winter's frigid weather has been especially hard on those who don’t have warm clothing, as inner city outreach teams are working hard to keep up with a spike in demand.

Calls to Edmonton’s 211 distress line in January for people in danger of freezing were more than double the previous January, due to a long stretch of extreme cold.

Emma Potter, acting manager of helplines with the Canadian Mental Health Association, said they received 1,975 cold weather-related calls last month, compared to 932 in January 2017.

Last month was also up from December, when they got 1,718 cold-weather calls.

“We did see quite a significant jump when it got colder,” Potter said.

“We haven’t really had those big, long stretches of warm weather. We’ve had pockets of it but it’s remained pretty cold, especially over the Christmas holidays and in the past week or two.”

The mental health association triages 211 calls. Most go to Boyle Street and Hope Mission’s 24/7 crisis diversion teams, which respond by picking up the people in need in vans, while more extreme cases are re-routed to 911.

Hope Mission spokesperson Robyn Padanyi said they responded to 817 of those January calls, which is a record number for the organization.

Sindi Addorisio, assistant manager of outreach and support services at Boyle Street, said many of the calls are for people who are spotted outside without proper winter clothing.

“We’ve been getting lots of calls like that – somebody is inappropriately dressed and they’ve got snow all over them and it looks like they’ve been sleeping in a snow bank,” she said.

“So then we try to take them to a warm place, or we give them whatever supplies we have.”

Sindi Addorisio (right) and Abdul Qureshi are a part of the Crisis Diversion Team at Boyle Street.

Kevin Tuong/Edmonton Freelance

Sindi Addorisio (right) and Abdul Qureshi are a part of the Crisis Diversion Team at Boyle Street.

Addorisio said the spike in calls has hurt response times.

Crisis teams aim to respond in less than 20 minutes, but when the call volumes are high that’s not always possible.

“Our response times were a bit longer than we would like them to be, but we tried to keep up as best we can,” Addorisio said.

“Some of the times, the person that we’re looking for has left the place that we’ve gone to.”

Addorisio said calling 211 is better than calling 911 when a person is in distress but not doing anything illegal and does not require emergency medical assistance.

She said it frees up police resources and the team generally responds more quickly than police would.

People in distress are also more likely to respond positively to a Hope Mission or Boyle Street van than a police paddywagon.

“We have lots of already built relationships with community members. So when they see our vans, or Hope Mission’s van, approach them, it’s not sort of a power thing,” Addorisio said.

Boyle Street’s drop-in is also much busier than usual this winter.

At Hope Mission, Padanyi said they are running low on warm clothing items for clients – specifically socks, gloves and underwear.

“Especially when you consider how much snow we’ve had, people’s gloves get wet, their socks get wet,” he said. “If you’re homeless and you’re in crisis … that can be a significant concern when the temperature gets as low as it does.”

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