Cold December 04 2016

In 1996, my oldest son wrote the following article and won first place for Feature Writing in the province-wide Toronto Star High School Newspaper Awards. Sadly, 20 years later, not much has changed, except the names.

by Jeremy Tobias

At a core temperature of 33 degrees Celsius you become drowsy and lethargic. Because of restricted peripheral blood flow, which causes a loss of motor skills, you are unable to perform any simple tasks like zipping up your coat or tying your shoelaces. You are clumsy and your speech is slurred. You begin to shiver violently. Your behaviour is apathetic.

At a core temperature of 30 degrees you fall, crashing down on to the cold pavement, no longer able to stand. You curl into the fetal position to conserve body heat. Due to frostbite, ice crystals begin to form in the cells of your pale, puffy skin. The shivering comes in waves now and more violent than before. Finally, in an effort to conserve glucose, you stop shivering altogether. Carbon dioxide and lactic acid build up in your muscles, causing them to become stiff and rigid. Your pupils dilate. Your pulse slows.

At 28 degrees your body tries to hibernate, shutting down all peripheral blood flow. Your heart rate and your breathing slow. When your body's core temperature is 24 degrees Celsius you reach a state known as "metabolic icebox." You look dead – your skin and lips are blue – but you're not. You are still alive, trapped inside your stiff motionless body. Your breathing is erratic and shallow. You are only semiconscious of what is going on around you. Finally, mercifully, your heart stops.

This is what you would have experienced if you had suffered Eugene Upper's fate on the night of January 5, 1996. Eugene spent the night in a bus shelter on Spadina Avenue in an effort to escape the bitter cold, but because he had been drinking he was especially susceptible to the effects of hypothermia. He had no blanket and wore no hat or gloves; all he had to protect him from the cold was a coat that was barely adequate for winter use. Eugene was found the next morning, literally frozen to death. He was fifty-six when he died.

Eugene's death begs for answers to many frightening questions. Why didn't anybody help him? Where were the police? Wouldn't they notice a man sleeping in the cold with nothing to protect him from the frost? And where was the T.T.C.? Buses run along the Spadina route until 2 A.M. and then start up again at 6 A.M. How can it be that Eugene wasn't noticed by anyone until eight o'clock the next morning when he was found dead? The obvious answer is that Eugene was not noticed because nobody bothered to pay any attention to him.

I find it impossible to come up with any rational explanation as to why people freeze to death in a wealthy North American city like Toronto. It defies logic. But the predictable fact remains that every winter, homeless men and women die on the streets because you and I don't take the time to notice them or their situation. They are effectively ostracized to death by an uncaring city.

I wish I could say for sure that if I had come across Eugene that night I would have helped him. I wish I could say that I would have given him a blanket and something hot to drink, or helped him find a warmer place to sleep. But the reality is that I don't know how I would have reacted. It's entirely possible that I, like many people, might have seen him lying there and wondered if I should have done something but in the end decided to do nothing.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with one of Eugene's friends. Every Saturday night, as part of the city-wide Out of the Cold program, Blythwood Road Baptist Church opens its doors to the men and women who live in Toronto's homeless community. Eugene was a regular at Blythwood. It was there in a church basement that I first came to know Mike and where I met with him to discuss Eugene Upper. Mike is  thin, uncommonly joyful man (uncommon given his current situation), who always wears a small silver and black crucifix around his neck. Based on our conversation there are a few things about Eugene I would like to clarify.

Eugene Upper was not a vagrant or a transient. Eugene Upper was not just another faceless bum on the streets of Toronto. He was a flesh and blood, living, feeling human being who didn't deserve the fate he received. He was a member of a community, and though he mostly kept to himself, he had friends who now mourn him. Yes, Eugene often found comfort in a bottle, in fact the night that he died he passed out in his supper plate at the Scott Mission. But you would drink too, to fight the cold, or if you had to live Eugene's life. 

Mike believes that Eugene may not have even tried to make it to the Out of the Cold program or any other shelter because he had been drinking. He may have feared that he wouldn't be accepted, although no one would have refused him – Eugene was not an aggressive man. 

In a tragic sort of way Mike is relieved at Eugene's passing. "I know that he (Eugene) is in a place where there is no suffering or tears," he says, "but on the other hand, I will miss him."

I would like to thank my friend Mike. This article could not have been written without his help.

Dedicated to the memory of Eugene Upper. 


Here is a link to another great article about the Out of the Cold program written by our friend Larry Matthews for the Globe and Mail. 
Well worth the read.


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