A homeless man takes advantage of St. Felix Centre’s 24-hour warming station during an extreme weather alert in Toronto earlier this month. Photo by Evan Boudreau

St. Felix Centre teams with city to stay open during deep freeze

By 
  • January 22, 2015

TORONTO - Catholics in the city have forged relationships with secular partners to provide the homeless somewhere safe and warm during the sometimes fatally freezing temperatures of Toronto’s winter.

This winter when the mercury dips below -15 C and the city issues an Extreme Cold Weather Alert, the St. Felix Social Ministries Outreach will remain open as a 24-hour warming station. It’s part of a new agreement with Dixon Hall, which operates the city’s Out of the Cold program.

“I saw the opportunity and I thought what an amazing thing to do,” said Gill Middleton, a spokesperson for the outreach centre’s interim-leadership team. “We already do that (welcome the homeless) so to expand that just seemed like a natural transition... It could save lives.”

St. Felix was prepared to serve around the clock as of Nov. 15, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that its service was needed. Sub-zero temperatures this winter have contributed to the deaths of at least three men, all suspected of being part of the city’s estimated 5,000 homeless population.

January has also seen eight Extreme Cold Weather Alerts in Toronto, which typically issues 16 alerts annually. But with two of the deaths occurring before the year’s first alert was issued on Jan. 7, critics of the Out of the Cold program have been calling for an expanded shelter system.

Middleton however, doesn’t think more shelters will keep her clients off the streets on cold winter nights.

“There has been a lot of debate about more shelters,” she said. “But the people that are in here tonight are the people that will not go to shelters for sure because they say that they are not safe.”

And it isn’t just shelters that the homeless shy away from due to the frequency of harassment, robbery and physical assaults. Even some of the Out of the Cold’s regular drop-in programs are plagued by this, putting greater demand on the 24-hour warming stations.

Bill Flattery, co-ordinator of the St. Brigid’s Annex Out of the Cold program, said it is common to see former clients outside along Danforth Avenue on Mondays when the drop-in runs.

“Their own kind is bullying them,” he said. “That’s why you see the people on the streets. They don’t want to come in ... (and) it makes me feel sad; some of them are in really bad shape.”

A volunteer for 22 years, Flattery said the program’s clientele has drastically changed over the years from mostly respectful individuals who appreciated the social service to a new generation in their early 30s using the drop-in centre as “a party spot.”

With both an LCBO and Beer Store within walking distance of the program, Flattery said those parties frequently come with violent outbursts fuelled by alcohol.

“I just called the police department three weeks in a row,” he said, noting that his core volunteers, mostly in their 60s, are not able to intervene safely before things escalate. “It was so bad, there was violence everywhere.”  

It got to the point where Flattery forged a new working relationship with Toronto Police from nearby 55 Division.

“It was just terrible so I got on track with the police department, 55, who are going to send over a unit who will be dropping in periodically to help deter some of these bad guys.”

But a deterrent at one location is not a solution to a city-wide problem, said Flattery, who thinks the government needs to step in.

“Instead of progressing and taking the sick off of the streets we are pushing them onto the streets,” he said. “The government has to look at that.”

Jane Roy, manager of the Out of the Cold program at Dixon Hall, said the problem of client-on-client crime turning many away from drop-in programs is something on her radar too.

“Things are not getting better, it is getting worse,” she said, noting that Dixon Hall does provide security at the Out of the Cold sites. “We are working on how to fix the issue but that is not a short-term goal, not something that can be done overnight.”

The short-term solution this year is the partnerships with social service agencies like St. Felix. Last year Metro Hall was used during the city’s well-above-average 36 extreme weather alerts.

“It is a better system just because we are now dealing with these new partners that are also social service agencies,” she said. “They would be more equipped to sort of deal with any issues that come up or services that are needed for our clients. Also we are not just giving them a night there and food but there is staff there who can deal with other issues our clients may have or other needs that they have.”

Whether or not those partnerships will exist next year is not clear, but if Middleton has a say in the matter St. Felix will be back.

“I’m a great advocate for partnerships,” she said. “If I stay in this role then it would be something that I will try to work on more.”

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