It all starts with a pair of warm socks

  1. members of the Health Bus and Harm Reduction teams show off bundles of socks in front of the Health Bus

As the temperatures drop, people who are experiencing homelessness or are underhoused start to steel themselves for the winter. With less access to resources, a decrease in options for keeping warm due to COVID-19, and a cold and snowy winter in the forecast, this year may be particularly challenging. “For people already having a tough time, the cold weather makes a hard life much more difficult,” explains Emily Schepers, coordinator of the Rotary Club of Toronto Sherbourne Health Bus.

That’s why Sherbourne Health’s Urban Health Team takes extra measures to ensure that our service users have access to items that can help make the winter a little bit more bearable. And there is one small thing that can make a huge difference: a decent pair of socks.

Jenn Hupalo, Urban Health Program Coordinator, says that every year, the team works to assess client needs. “When we are doing outreach in the beginning of the winter and through the season, we continually check in about what people need. It can change year to year, and we want to make sure we are directing our energy and limited funds in the right direction.” Some of the typical support Sherbourne offers to help with winter relief includes hats, mittens and gloves, sweatpants, sweatshirts, and when our budget allows, we’ve even been able to give out boots. But socks are one item that is always in high demand.

“One thing that is surprising to many people is the volume of socks that we give out. We can’t give people one pair of socks for the whole winter – they may not have access to laundry, waterproof footwear, or other resources that could help make one pair last,” says Jenn. “That means we need to offer many, many pairs of socks just to keep people safe and warm.”

Every winter sees different challenges for people spending much or all of their time outside. Through the pandemic, our teams are also encountering more people who are trying to stay out of shelters due to fears over the spread of COVID-19. “Many people experiencing homelessness or who are underhoused have a lot of mistrust in some of the institutions set up to help – whether that is shelters or the healthcare system – due to bad experiences in the past,” says Emily.

And building that trust is another reason that winter outreach can be so important explains Kevin Healey, Community Support Worker with Sherbourne’s Health Bus. “Somebody might come to the Health Bus and check it out and ask for socks. After coming back, four, five or even 10 times for something as simple as a clean, warm pair of socks, they might decide they can trust us enough to access important health care,” says Kevin. “The socks are important, but they are also a gateway for us to establish a relationship with people.”

System navigation is an important part of what Sherbourne Health does as well, and service users work with our outreach team for so much more than just socks, or health care, says Jenn. “Yes, we certainly help people with keeping warm and their physical health, but a lot of what we do is helping out with emotional support, counselling, or helping with getting a bed for the night when needed. There are so many aspects to this work and it’s more needed than ever.”

If you would like to support Sherbourne Health’s programs offering winter relief, visit https://sherbourne.on.ca/get-involved/donate/

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