Out of the Cold guests credited the staff, such as these volunteers from York Region’s OOTC program, for making them feel welcome at OOTC sites in Toronto. Register file photo

Study paints bleak portrait of city’s poor

  • April 21, 2019

For the first time in its 30-year history, researchers have taken a serious look at who uses Toronto’s volunteer, informal, faithbased system of overnight shelters known as Out of the Cold.

The 58-page study of Out of the Cold guests draws a picture of desperate, dehumanizing poverty.

Compared to the larger, mainstream homeless population found in city-run shelters, Out of the Cold (OOTC) users remain homeless longer and face greater barriers to finding a permanent home, according to the study “Calling Home: Exploring Homelessness in Our City,” which was commissioned by Dixon Hall, the cityfunded agency which provides some services to 16 Out of the Cold sites in Toronto.

Out of the Cold guests reported being homeless for an average of 7.2 years, compared to an average of 3.6 years for city shelter users, the study said.

All OOTC users count as poor by any statistical measure, but the depth of poverty is significant, the report said. For the Out of the Cold guests who participated in the study, 51.3 per cent claimed to have an income of less than $800 per month, including 5.4 per cent who said they had no income at all, 16.2 per cent who earned between $1 and $400 per month, and 29.7 per cent who took in between $401 and $800. Less than three per cent (2.7 per cent) had an income above $1,400. Their biggest source of income was the Ontario Disability Support Program, with 37.8 per cent collecting ODSP.

There were 37 participants in the survey, which the study notes “may be unrepresentative” compared to the total of 1,260 who used the program during 2017-18.

Nevertheless, St. Patrick’s Out of the Cold director Julia Pelenyi was glad to see a serious look at the program and the people it serves. “Information is always helpful,” she told The Catholic Register .

Pelenyi is also hoping the report spurs some action on the part of governments.

“Something has to be done,” she said.

Those homeless who prefer Out of the Cold say it’s the welcome they receive from volunteers that keeps them showing up at church basements, synagogues and other OOTC sites, the survey says.

“One respondent described the staff as ‘phenomenal,’ ” reads the report. “Some felt it was evident the volunteers genuinely wanted to be present at the site and felt the staff treated guests well.”

“The study is obviously long overdue,” said St. Jerome’s University sociology professor David Seljak.

“It should surprise me that it took 30 years for this study to be done, but regrettably the way we treat the homeless — we mostly ignore them — means that it’s not surprising that studies like this would come out so late,” he said.

In a city in which housing has become a privilege of the rich, the homeless are by definition “the excluded,” Seljak said. Politicians at all levels have no excuse for doing nothing, said the professor.

“According to Catholic social teaching, the abandonment of the poor to the natural workings of the market is simply unacceptable,” said Seljak.

The report notes that 145 homeless died in Toronto between Jan. 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018. It’s a number that should remind Catholics of Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium , said Seljak.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” wrote the Pope. “Such an economy kills.”

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