Last year, there were 13,009 overnight stays in Out of the Cold programs from November to April. iStock photo

Need, hope grows as Out of the Cold digs in to help the homeless

  • November 15, 2018

In 2006, after 20 years of stellar work with the Out of the Cold program to shelter the homeless, its co-founder was not impressed.

“It’s not a compliment that Out of the Cold is growing so much,” said Sr. Sue Moran as she was presented with the Order of Canada. “There has to be homes for these people. There has to be an economy that is sensitive to the poor and jobs available.”

It’s 12 years later — and almost two years since Sr. Sue passed away — and still Out of the Cold is growing as it faces yet another long winter. 

The good news is that the program has become the first step on a pathway from life on the street to a permanent home in the community. Partnered with municipal governments and government-funded agencies, Out of the Cold now provides professional help to those guests who are seeking permanent housing. Early pilot projects have proved successful. And despite the growing numbers of homeless, the program continues to be a reliable network of church basements, synagogues and mosques which each welcome the homeless for one night per week, taking turns so that seven faith communities together can offer a full week of accommodation. 

But as social workers begin to find success getting people out of the church basement and into an apartment, the volunteers who blazed the trail in some venues are beginning to tire

“By the end of the year last year, our churches and our volunteers after 22 years — they’re getting a little bit tired,” said St. Catharines, Ont., Out of the Cold chair Susan Venditti. “They looked at what they could do safely. They could continue to do the meals. They really wanted a different arrangement for the overnights.”

Open this year since Nov. 1, the St. Catharines Out of the Cold program is already at maximum capacity. 

“I’m not anticipating that we will be able to meet the need through this whole winter,” Venditti said.

“We have found, over the last couple of years anyway, that the volunteers, the leadership at the churches, have gotten tired,” said Rehana Sumar, executive director of the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold in York Region, just north of Toronto. “Our (volunteer) numbers for overnight and especially the morning have almost completely disappeared. We’re struggling at all of our sites to find people who can do the breakfast in the morning. There’s definitely some fatigue amongst the volunteers and some of the churches — definitely.”

But volunteer fatigue isn’t universal. One of the original Out of the Cold programs at St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Toronto had no problem lining up over 80 volunteers ready to welcome, feed and watch over the homeless once a week starting Nov. 18.

Some of the hope fuelling volunteer enthusiasm at St. Pat’s has to do with city-funded client intervention workers who are there through the dinner hour into the evening each night Out of the Cold is open. The city and federal government-funded workers are able to refer willing St. Pat’s guests on to services that can find housing and the kinds of supports — from housework to banking to addiction and mental health counselling — that will increase chances for some of Toronto’s most marginal and hard-to-house citizens staying housed.

Last year the social service agency Dixon Hall and the city piloted an intensive “housing first” program at Out of the Cold in Toronto’s east end. The pilot met with real success. In Beach United Church and St. Aidan’s Anglican’s Out of the Cold program, 12 of 24 participants were permanently housed.

Client intervention workers outside the pilot program were able to house 35 per cent of the Out of the Cold guests who were willing to work with them — 30 of 86 individuals. The “housing first” principle is based on research led by Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, which established that getting people off the street and into their own home first was the best way of tackling the other issues, from employment to mental health, that might have made people homeless in the first place.

Success in putting the “housing first” model to work gives St. Pat’s volunteer and Out of the Cold director Julia Polenyi a degree of cautious optimism.

“It’s a more complex issue than was originally thought,” Polenyi told The Catholic Register. “But they’re not being abandoned.”

St. Pat’s has capacity for 250 guests and they fill up almost every night. Once at capacity, guests are referred on to other Out of the Cold venues and to city shelters. 

There’s good news on the city shelter side of the equation, too.

Toronto’s system of 63 shelters with about 7,000 beds housing refugees, abused women and their children, migrant labourers and street people has added 145 new respite beds to bring the total in that part of the shelter program to 590. 

The city has purchased three pre-fabricated buildings which will eventually offer 24-hour respite from the cold. The first of them is scheduled to be up and operating in the parking lot of Lamport Stadium on Dec. 15. The pre-fab sites will cost about $2.5 million to buy and install. About $3 million has been set aside for food, security and other operating costs.

Last year, Toronto’s Out of the Cold system city-wide operated at 95 per cent capacity — five per cent above the city’s recommended occupancy rate for a safe and sane system, but down significantly from 101.5 per cent in the 2016-17 season. There were 13,009 overnight stays in Out of the Cold programs from November to April. However, it was a long winter with 31 extreme cold weather alerts and some sites extended their season into May.

In St. Catharines, Out of the Cold welcomed its guests to 7,864 overnight stays last winter — a 108-per-cent increase over the previous year.

Venditti reports city and regional government are shouldering more of the burden, with 15 new temporary, winter-season beds in Niagara Falls and 15 more permanent beds now up and running in St. Catharines.

The local politicians have also found money to help the social service agency Start Me Up Niagara provide overnight staff to Out of the Cold, as well as providing space to Out of the Cold in a city-owned building for three nights of every week. The other four nights are hosted by churches. Start Me Up has trained former Out of the Cold guests to be those overnight staffers.

“Because they actually get the story,” explained Venditti, who is also the director of Start Me Up Niagara.

In Richmond Hill and Markham the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold has 14 faith communities providing space over the course of the winter, including the just-added Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church.

The paid staffers of Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold partner agencies have been trained to deal with overdoses and they carry Naloxone kits.

“The substances that are on the street now are very different from what they used to be 20 years ago,” said Sumar. “They are more chemical. You know they have the fentanyl. You have all these very dangerous, chemical drugs out there.”

In St. Catharines, the paid staff at Out of the Cold sites also carry Naloxone kits.

“Talk to them (volunteers) about Naloxone training and injections — this is beyond what our volunteers signed up for,” said Venditti.

Without a crystal ball at her disposal, Polenyi isn’t going to try to predict what’s in store for this winter at Out of the Cold. The one thing she’s sure of is that the program is needed. “It would be great if there were no need for us,” she said. “But that’s obviously not the case.” 

St. Patrick’s pastor Fr. Santo Arrigo told The Catholic Register the parish would continue Out of the Cold regardless of the city government’s response to homelessness.

“We will continue Out of the Cold because it’s needed,” he said.

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