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

Out of room at Out of the Cold: Toronto's homeless need more than just shelters

  • December 13, 2018

As Toronto’s city-run shelter system bulges with refugees and migrants, volunteer-run Out of the Cold programs are operating at capacity and wondering when governments are going to get serious about housing.

“We keep talking about shelters, shelters, shelters. We keep building shelters,” said Dixon Hall housing services manager David Reycraft. “And now new layers of sheltering people through the respite services. But they’re not the answer to housing. They’re not the answer to homelessness.”

A point-in-time survey of Toronto’s homeless population conducted last April and released Nov. 29 found that 40 per cent of the people in city shelters were in Canada claiming asylum or had arrived here as refugees. It is a dramatic rise from just 11 per cent in early 2016 and 25 per cent in late 2017.

The Street Needs Assessment survey found 8,715 homeless people in Toronto, including 533 sleeping outdoors.

The top three reasons cited by homeless people for their situation were migration, inability to pay rent and eviction for non-financial reasons. Contradicting the common image of homeless people, only five per cent of respondents said they were on the street because of addiction or substance abuse. And only five per cent cited illness or a medical condition, such as mental illness, as a reason for being homeless.

The Out of the Cold program — running in 18 sites across Toronto, including three Catholic and 12 Protestant churches, two synagogues and University Settlement House — has begun to notice differences between its guests and the population using city shelters. While about 10 per cent of city shelter users are senior citizens, around 30 per cent of Out of the Cold guests are seniors.

“Elderly people feel a kind of safety in the Out of the Cold program,” Reycraft told The Catholic Register. “And they seem to be aging with the program.”

Not all users of Out of the Cold are in fact homeless, with many coming to the volunteer-run programs for the evening meal but going elsewhere to sleep.

“We have seen an increase in the number of people coming to access the food programs in the Out of the Cold, and that is often about — it’s certainly about access to food, but it’s also about access to community,” Reycraft said. “It is about access to the social determinants of health. Certainly community is something that we at Dixon Hall think is a critical piece of the social determinants of health.”

City-funded Dixon Hall provides security services and co-ordination between Out of the Cold sites, as well as collecting data about the 30-year-old program, which began as a project of high school students at St. Michael’s College School and their chaplains Sr. Sue Moran and Basilian Fr. John Murphy.

The average rent for a one-bedroom unit in Toronto is $2,220, according to the rent-tracking site PadMapper.com. A two-bedroom goes for $2,830. Whether the homeless are refugees, de-institutionalized mental health patients, addicts or just stuck on welfare, the fact is even middle class people are having trouble earning enough to pay over $26,000 a year in rent, said Reycraft.

“Investing our dollars in respite services and shelters is critical as an emergency response, but we need more leadership around the housing portfolio and a commitment to building more housing at a whole bunch of levels,” he said. “We need to redefine what affordable housing means.”

After releasing the Streets Needs Assessment, city officials issued a call for increased federal and provincial government funding.

“The city can’t do this alone. The federal government has come forward with initial help but we need the continued assistance of our federal and provincial partners to ensure that Toronto remains a safe, welcoming and accessible place for all,” said Mayor John Tory in a statement.

The Housing First experiment launched by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital has resulted in housing more than 2,000 chronically homeless people since 2016. But the program can’t expand without new money, according to the city’s shelter support and housing administration.

The Street Needs survey was conducted April 26, when most of the Out of the Cold sites had already closed for the season. The assessment found less than one per cent of homeless were using Out of the Cold. Those numbers don’t reflect the essential role Out of the Cold plays, Reycraft said.

“The Out of the Cold program continues to be a critical piece of the system,” he said. “We’ve noticed our numbers are at capacity. This is no longer a cold-weather response program…. It seems like, we open it and they will come.”

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