Saturday, April 25, 2009

Not so startling news: Toronto Homeless prefer grassroots Out of the Cold to city run shelters

It’s spring right? I mean it’s getting warmer right? Well, I don’t know about where you live, but here in Toronto there has been a dearth of fine spring weather. We’ve had more than our share it seems of unseasonably cold weather, especially cold, blustery winds and the perennial April showers. Most of us, we live with it, it’s an annual thing - how soon will it warm up - and doesn’t seem to affect our daily routine more than getting the car out of the garage and walking from the parking lot to work or other destinations. To our homeless friends on the street however, it is much more than an inconvenience.
[all photos by AndyC...that would be me...]



Out of the Cold: for the homeless

Toronto’s Out of the Cold program has wrapped up again for another season. What this means for the few hundred homeless people who attend the Out of the Cold programs is that they are once again “Out on the Streets”. I was out with a small volunteer group a couple of weeks ago with the regular Project417 Sandwich Run outreach to the homeless on a Monday night. The streets have been particularly quieter this winter as far as the presence of the homeless (more on this later) but most of our route was busier that night and as we arrived at Nathan Phillips Square at the Toronto City Hall, there was a marked increase in our homeless friends that I haven’t seen since last fall.

Five years ago, it was very different at city hall. Then Mayor Mel Lastman had unofficially condoned the homeless sleeping outside city hall all around Nathan Phillips Square “if they had no other shelter”. It was a year round phenomenon with upwards of two hundred people sleeping in a cardboard jungle right next to the front doors of city hall or just bundled up in sleeping bags on every available bench and corner protected from the wind and elements. That whole period in Toronto’s homelessness saga deserves a more detailed analysis. There had been a marked population boom when Home Depot and the city shut down Tent City down by the harbour, but suffice to say that upon the ascension to power of Mayor David Miller, the official policy changed, Streets to Homes was born, the 100 plus bed Edwards street shelter opened (now closed and slated for “affordable” housing) and city security quickly turfed the homeless residents of Nathan Phillips Square. This prompted one homeless bard to pen a lilting country tune, “How do You Sleep”, dedicated to Mayor Miller. One woman, who had slept on the Square for a few years, simply moved down a couple blocks onto a hot air ventilating grate across from a major hotel, where we see her every night we are on the street - yes, that’s right, she has slept in that exposed sidewalk location every night for the last five years. Again, Mayor Miller has demonstrated that he is not unfeeling when it comes to homelessness and more independent study is required of the touted success of the Streets to Homes program he championed, but this blog is about our friends still sleeping outside at City Hall.


Homeless on Queen Street W., Toronto

During the winter months, Nathan Phillips Square is one of the stops on our Project417 Sandwich Run that has several routes spanning the downtown core from about Bathurst out to Parliament and from Bloor down to the Gardiner Expressway (with a van route that reaches more outlying areas). This winter - we go out on sandwich runs even during cold weather alerts of which there were many this year in temperatures below minus twenty - there has generally been only two or three homeless men and women sleeping at city hall. There has almost always been at least one - our dear friend Randy*, a double amputee, who sleeps there sitting upright in his wheelchair with his sleeping bag upside down over his head. During the recent celebrated Earth Hour on Nathan Phillips Square (I’ve never encountered such bright lights and high powered amplified music during any other “blackout”), we spent almost three quarters of an hour talking to Randy and looking on at the eco-revellers from Randy’s dark, hidden alcove just steps from the celebration. Randy practices “lights out” 365 days a year, except for the daily charge his wheelchair battery receives at a friend’s close by. Streets to Homes outreach workers are in constant contact with anyone, including Randy, who sleeps at city hall, but so far have been ineffective in convincing many chronically homeless men and women like him to choose the severely limited housing options available. [*Randy is not his real name]

Now during the spring, summer and fall, the number of our homeless friends sleeping on Nathan Phillips still rises to more than a dozen, sometimes double that. On the recent Monday night, we had no sooner approached Randy than I noticed there were several more homeless in view under the walkway. As soon as they noticed us, they literally ran over, happy to see us, recognizing the tell tale bag lunches out team carries. “Hey Andy, we’re back”, a couple shouted. I’ve known many of them for almost ten years going back to the first time I ventured out on the streets to help the homeless with Project417 (Our director, Joe Elkerton has been performing outreach to the street homeless almost twenty years in Toronto). “Hey, I’m glad to see you!”, I answered back, but in truth, I was disturbed and profoundly saddened to see their familiar faces. Yes, they’re my friends and yes I missed them over the winter, but I had hoped that some had found a place to call home in the last four months.

The reason they are back out on the streets at night is, as I mentioned at the start, the end of the Out of the Cold Program until next November. For those of you who don’t know, or who may have been misinformed, Out of the Cold is not a City of Toronto or other level of government program. What it is, is a grassroots success story - a faith based program started by Sister Susan Moran and her St. Michael’s School students back in 1987 and a coalition of local downtown Christian church communities. Indeed it has developed into a multi-faith initiative with representation at 23 facilities from different faith and organizations taking part now. Very simply, the model is: local downtown churches open their doors one night a week to provide a hot meal and a place to sleep “out of the cold”. In Toronto, more than three thousand volunteers help every winter to feed and provide shelter to about five hundred of our homeless friends. The majority of the food, materials, supplies, shelter and other costs are funded by the local church members. (Note - The city does fund the program peripherally - a local non-profit social service agency -currently Dixon Hall- has an annual contract to send one or two safety and security personnel to some sites, some transportation of guests and the supply/ laundering of a limited number of blankets and sleeping mats. They also provide counselling, housing worker and referral services to the guests. A separate community health care provider offers a registered nurse at each location) Only 16 of the churches fully opt in to these city services with several preferring the freedom and intimacy of program delivery funded and guided by their own community resources and principals. This model has spread nationwide and Sister Susan was recognized with the Order of Canada in 2006 for her contribution.

Why the streets see a surge of the over five hundred homeless when Out of the Cold ends is because the majority of them would not step foot in a city run shelter. They just plain like the Out of the Cold program sites and the volunteers who run them. They tell me the food is better by far - the people are friendlier - the rules less stringent - the atmosphere more inviting and they enjoy the other programs run concurrent to the Out of the Cold like, music nights, sports, foodbanks, clothing banks, crafts and personal hygiene care services. The sleeping arrangements are often more primitive than city run shelters, usually just thin mats on the floor placed in open areas like church gyms, but still our homeless friends praise the program and bemoan the fact that it runs only November to April.

There are over three thousand city run emergency shelter beds at numerous locations from small 20 to 30 bed operations to the 600 bed monster on George Street - Seaton House, (affectionately dubbed Satan House by it’s inhabitants) and this number has dropped due to budget cuts and the questionable recommendations of the infamous city sponsored “homeless count census” - a limited, one day snapshot of street populations. The Out of the Cold program has remained stable or grown over the same period. Our homeless friends eagerly attend Out of the Cold shelters, many making the trek across the city several nights a week to the next church location that is open that night. There is one Out of the Cold program that operates more than one night a week. University Settlement House, an independent non-profit, United Way partner agency and City of Toronto supported community center next to the Grange Park, runs an Out of the Cold Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter and Saturdays, Sundays only in the summer. It is one of the best liked shelters amongst our street friends, and they all miss Fridays now that spring has come.


Love on the street

It’s time the city reviewed their emergency shelter programs and borrowed a page from the Out of the Cold program’s success story. The city shelters are efficiently run, relatively clean and safe to a certain degree - but they are still shunned by many of the homeless. Many lack the humanity and compassion shown to them by Out of the Cold volunteer efforts. Our friends are homeless - not just house-less. What is the distinction? What makes a house a home? - LOVE - A commodity in short supply evidently when payed for by tax dollars and delivered by bureaucrats. Thank God, Toronto’s faith community has a surfeit of love and compassion - I only wish, for the five hundred more men and women we’ll be serving now out on the streets with the Project417 sandwich runs, that communities could see that people need to come in out of the cold year round.

If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to one of the local Toronto Out of the Cold sites, the best way is to contact them directly. There is no formal or central “Out of the Cold” foundation to receive donations, each location is self-supporting through their local congregations - and the OOTC schedule link above is maintained by Dixon Hall, a separate non-profit. So I’ve taken the time to compile this list of the 2008/2009 Out of the Cold locations:

Knox Presbyterian Youth Dinner & Foodbank


630 Spadina Ave (no overnight program)

University Settlement House


23 Grange Rd. Year round Out of the Cold program

St. Patrick’s Church


141 McCaul Street at Dundas

St. Margaret’s Church


156 - 6th Street (Islington and Birmingham)

Evangel Hall


552 Adelaide, E. of Bathurst

York Region Mosaic Interfaith community

Yorkminister Park Baptist

1585 Yonge Street, N. of St. Clair

Holy Blossom Temple

1950 Bathurst at Eglinton

Eastminster United

310 Danforth Ave. at Chester

Blythwood Road Baptist

80 Blythwood Road
N of Yonge/Eglington

St. Matthew’s / Our Lady Peace

3962 BloorSt W

St. Brigid’s

Woodbine & Danforth

Beth Sholom / Beth Tzedec
1445 Eglinton Ave W


First Interfaith at St. Matthew’s

729 St. Clair Ave. W

All Saints Kingsway Anglican

2850 Bloor W

Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue

100 Elder St

Chinese Gospel Church

450 Dundas W

Knox United

Agincourt

St. Aidan’s

70 Silver Birch Ave

St. Michaels Cathedral

66 Bond Street (St. Mike’s parish)

Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship 1307 Bloor St. W;
(Overnight tba Community dinner only, year round)

To volunteer for a Project417 Sandwich Run to the homeless visit Project417.com and check our online volunteer calendar and read about other volunteers’ stories. More than two thousand people helped us last year - come on out and see!

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