A guest staying at one of York region's Out of the Cold centres 2019. Photo courtesy of Out of the Cold

Out of the Cold programs rethinking future as city steps up homeless services

  • June 12, 2018

It may be time to consider closing Out of the Cold, said the man responsible for managing the 30-year-old church-based shelter program.

Despite a 60-per-cent increase in Toronto’s street population over the last five years, overnight stays at Out of the Cold dropped 4.9 per cent last winter. 

The volunteer-run emergency shelter system that operates out of 17 sites — 13 of them churches or synagogues — saw a dip in numbers because the city opened nine 24-hour respite sites, plus the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition grounds and the Moss Park Armoury

“Those sites are opened forever,” said David Reycraft, director of housing services at Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services, which manages Out of the Cold. “They would be quite angry to hear me say that they’re open forever. I want to remind them, much to their chagrin, that the Out of the Cold program opened 30 years ago as a temporary, stop-gap measure. Here we are 32 years later and they (the city) are counting on us.”

Even though last winter’s numbers barely dipped below full capacity — from 101.5 per cent in 2016-2017 to 92.9 per cent in 2017-2018 — Reycraft wonders whether it’s time for the churches to let the city take over the job on homelessness.

“There are some pressures around the Out of the Cold, whether or not it’s even fundamentally sensible to continue with the Out of the Cold program, based on the fact that now we have a more robust response from the city with regard to these respite sites,” Reycraft said.

There were 31 extreme cold weather alerts last winter, many of which lasted a week or more. A cold spring kept some Out of the Cold sites operating past the usual April 15 wrap-up. Preliminary, raw numbers from an April 26 “Street Needs Assessment” showed more than 8,000 homeless on that single night, a big jump from the 5,253 found on a similar night in 2013. 

While 24-hour respite centres took some pressure off Out of the Cold, “by the end of the season, our numbers were back up at 100 per cent,” Reycraft said.

In York Region there’s been no municipal intervention that has taken pressure off the Out of the Cold program there. The 520 people served over the course of the winter represented a 13-per-cent increase in Out of the Cold use in the suburbs north of Toronto, including a 19-per-cent increase in overnight stays.

“Like every year, we see an increase in our numbers,” said Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold program co-ordinator Rehana Sumar. “And resources remain limited, so our shelters are often operating above capacity.”

On nearly half the nights Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold was open, volunteers hosted 45 or more people — despite a 40 bed capacity. However, it isn’t just the numbers, but also the complexity of problems and depth of need that has been increasing, Sumar said.

“We see an increase in mental health and addictions worsening every year,” she said in an email. “Which also poses significant safety challenges.”

In Toronto, Dixon Hall has had some success getting help for the long-term, hard core homeless that show up at Out of the Cold night after night. Thanks to a federal grant, Dixon Hall staff were able to identify 102 patrons who use the program anywhere from 25 to 100 per cent of the nights the church and synagogue basements are open. From that total, Dixon Hall social workers found permanent housing for 35 of them, of which 33 have remained housed.

“We’re not just security guards showing up there, but we’re actually plying our services and our trade to support, to move them into housing,” Reycraft said.

The focus is now shifting to families and other vulnerable homeless who tend to avoid the shelter system.

“We’re starting to get to this population that was called the hidden homeless and now they’re not as hidden as they used to be,” Reycraft said. 

“It’s bad news that we’re not building enough housing to support marginalized communities. But it’s good news if we build programs to support those men and women.”

City council has approved a plan to open 1,000 new shelter beds over the next three years. A city staff report said Toronto would need approximately 1,077 new shelter beds to get the occupancy rate down to a more manageable 90 per cent of capacity.

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