With a crisis in affordable housing, the need for the Out of the Cold program keeps getting greater. Photo by Michael Swan.

Need for Out of the Cold spreads

  • November 8, 2014

TORONTO - It’s Out of The Cold season in Toronto. That means thousands of volunteers working in church basements, mosques and synagogues over the cold winter months to keep the homeless safe. 

“Our mandate is to get people off the streets, out of the cold, so they don’t die,” Rehana Sumar, executive director of Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold, told The Catholic Register

Over 23 years, what began as a Catholic student response to the death of a homeless man in the St. Michael’s College School parking lot has transformed several times. In the last few years it has spread past Toronto’s borders, into the suburbs. 

In Thornhill, Ont., Jaffri Islamic Centre, Temple Har Zion and St. Luke’s Catholic Church each offer a meal for up to 50 and a place to sleep for up to 30 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday respectively. 

Over the years it’s been tough to convince some people that the leafy, green suburbs need Out of the Cold, said Sumar. 

“There’s a perception — a myth — that poverty doesn’t exist up in Richmond Hill or Vaughan, that everyone is affluent here,” Sumar said. 

While there’s always a “not in my backyard” contingent to deal with, in fact many suburbanites do see the need. Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold has more people offering to volunteer than it can use. Sumar maintains a list of about 1,000 volunteers ready and able to work the winter nights. 

The 10 Out of the Cold programs north of Toronto have the active support of 50 faith communities who prepare meals, stock clothing banks and give money and time to the effort. There’s an Out of the Cold open somewhere north of Steeles Avenue six nights per week. 

Mosaic is trying to do more than just put out the sleeping mats and cook up the casseroles. They’re making sure there’s medical care available, from flu shots to nursing care. They also offer their guests housing referrals. 

Still Sumar knows all the volunteers and good will of Out of the Cold won’t solve the underlying problem. 

“There’s a major crisis of affordable housing. We’re not making a dent in that,” she said. 

York University’s Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness estimates 235,000 Canadians per year go through a period of homelessness, at a cost to the economy of $7 billion. 

The fact is that governments are spending substantially less trying to solve homelessness than they did 25 years ago, according to the Canadian Alliance’s most recent annual State of Homelessness report. Where in 1989 government spent $115 for each Canadian on building new affordable housing, today just $60 per Canadian goes to social housing. Where governments helped to build 20,450 affordable housing units in 1982, in 2006 (the most recent year of complete statistics) just 4,393 units were added coast to coast to Canada’s crumbling affordable housing stock. 

If Canadians could put just $46 more per person per year into building affordable housing, rates of homelessness would significantly decline, said the State of Homelessness report. 

Homelessness isn’t just bad luck or bad life choices, according to a new study by St. Michael’s Hospital researcher Dr. Stephen Hwang. In a paper published Oct. 23 in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, Hwang argues that “homelessness is equally the result of structural factors within a society, such as systematic inequities in educational and employment opportunities, a shortage of affordable housing and social policies that are targeted against marginalized populations.” 

Hwang is the principal investigator behind the At Home/Chez Soi research project which over five years has shown that finding housing for the homeless first — before trying to deal with employment, addictions, mental health issues and physical health issues — significantly increases the chances the homeless will successfully and permanently beat homelessness. 

Out of the Cold co-founder Sr. Sue Moran is worried about the immediate welfare of Toronto’s homeless this winter. 

She’s working to persuade the city to make public health nurses available in every Out of the Cold program. 

“From a medical viewpoint, we’re going to have to be very careful because there’s a lot of flu,” said Moran. 

Communicable diseases from tuberculosis to HIV to hepatitis C are all common in Toronto’s shelter system. 

After more than two decades organizing to get immediate, concrete help to the homeless, Moran sees no let up. 

“I’m expecting a hard winter,” she said. “There’s more people on the street, more that are hungry.” 

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