Bitter January temperatures in southern Ontario has increased the pressure to open more shelters for the homeless. Register file photo by Michael Swan

Out of the Cold program trying to cope in extreme conditions

  • January 5, 2018

As much of the country contended with an environmental explosion of extreme cold temperatures in early January, Out of the Cold centres were crying out for a better solution.

The Out of the Cold program (OOTC) was started by the late Sr. Susan Moran 30 years ago in Toronto. It has since expanded to a half-dozen municipalities across southern Ontario and also includes a program in Halifax, N.S. 

In every centre, the purpose is simple —get our homeless people out of the cold. However, keeping the promise of a hot meal and warm place to sleep is getting more difficult to keep.

In Toronto, as the number of homeless in Toronto climbs to over 5,000, parishes are bursting at the seams trying to accommodate the homeless in the winter program. Some shelters and centres have had to start turning people away.

“We don’t turn people away here,” said Rehana Sumar, executive director of the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold program in York region, which borders Toronto. “But in Toronto they have to. Their numbers are extremely high, at times it’s just physically impossible to accommodate everyone.”

Rehana Sumar Out of the Cold Rehana Sumar serves up hot meals at an Out of the Cold centre. Photos courtesy Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold for York Region.

Out of the Cold volunteers Volunteers prepare hot meals for guests. Photo courtesy of Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold for York Region.

Most centres operate at capacity, including the Sunday night shelter at St. Patrick’s parish in downtown Toronto, part of the Out of the Cold faith-based coalition of 16 churches and synagogues in the city.

St. Patrick’s can feed 200 people for dinner and sleep up to 80. Their facilities fill to capacity quickly and those who don’t get in are often left scrambling to find refuge.

“Out of the Cold isn’t a solution,” said Fr. Santo Arrigo, pastor and organizer of St. Patrick’s Out of the Cold program. “When we started, this was a temporary solution to keep people from freezing. Many of us never imagined we would still be operating two decades later.”

Guest at Out of the Cold centre A guest stays at one of York Region's Out of the Cold centres. Photos courtesy Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold for York Region.

What was once a Band-Aid solution has become one of few available options, he said.

“We hear a lot of fear and anxiety from our guests around freezing,” said Arrigo. “With how cold it’s been lately, we’re feeling that extra pressure. I haven’t heard about anyone freezing to death, but a lot of people go missing and turn up a few days later. But that’s the unspoken fear is that they have succumb to exposure.” 

Last winter, there were 13,199 overnight stays in Toronto’s OOTC shelters, which ran at 96 per cent of capacity. This year, an early January cold snap pushed temperatures well below normal which, combined with the wind chill, felt like -35C. Sometimes, when all the beds are full, people sleep on the floor or in chairs.

Last summer, Out of the Cold was approached by the City of Toronto with the request to open more centres. Until this year, Out of the Cold was 100 per cent funded by donations. This is the first year they have received funding for supplies as well as volunteers from Dixon Hall to help run security. 

“Many of our guests tell us they would rather come to us than to a (city-run) shelter. When the city asked us why that is, we had to tell them it’s because we are kinder to them. At shelters, they risk violence, theft and other dangers,” said Arrigo. 

Out of the Cold Thank you notes

A guest writes a thank you note for Out of the Cold volunteers. Photos courtesy Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold for York Region.

“As faith communities, we need to step up and be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our cities. We need to work together with the city on a permanent solution.” 

This year, the Better Living Centre at Toronto’s Exhibition Place opened as a shelter and demand has seen its capacity increase to 200 people. On Jan. 3, Moss Park Armoury in downtown Toronto opened another 100 beds. It is a start, but there is more work to be done.

“It’s hard for people to move to a new place every night,” said Sumar.

“There are lineups and if they don’t get in, it can be too late for someone to find another shelter. Bed capacity is also an issue. Even if there are beds available, they aren’t always accessible. If there is a bed in Scarborough but it’s 10 p.m. and that person is in the west end, they can’t always get there in time.” 

Arrigo’s dream is that someday the line outside St. Patrick’s will be non-existent.

“The dream is for everyone to have adequate housing. Practically speaking, we need to look at a multi-phase system that helps individuals at different stages not only to survive but to thrive.” 

OutoftheCold book cover

Out of the Cold: A history of caring

By Michael Swan | More info

From a modest storefront that opened 28 years ago to serve hot meals to a handful of homeless people, Out of the Cold has developed into an acclaimed winter program that last year provided food and overnight shelter to more than 12,000 homeless people.Catholic Register associate editor Michael Swan tells the remarkable story of how Out of the Cold evolved from modest beginnings as a weekend project at a Toronto Catholic high school into an extraordinary example of Christian love and caring. It’s a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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