As volunteers at the Out of the Cold programs across the GTA, including this one at Toronto’s St. Brigid’s Parish, prepare for the upcoming winter, added security measures are being implemented as violence is on the rise. Michael Swan

Out of the Cold steps up security

By 
  • November 23, 2019

As another Out of the Cold season gets underway volunteers are worried about increased violence they face as they offer hot meals and a bed to people living on the street.

“We’ve had situations where I and my co-worker at night, who is I think 73 or 74, he would be stepping in and risking a punch to the face or something thrown at him, or a hot tea in his face, trying to protect some of the elderly (volunteer) kitchen staff from a confrontation,” said St. Brigid’s Out of the Cold volunteer co-ordinator Jim Barnes.

“There’s an anger and a frustration. I think there’s more substance abuse than there was before,” said Barnes’s volunteer colleague Steve McDonald of St. Brigid’s. “There’s a rising concern for safety, which is real.”

North of the city, the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold program in Richmond Hill, Thornhill and Markham has also noticed the rising tide of violence.

“It has been for a few years now,” said co-ordinator Rehana Sumar. “The streets are not what they used to be before. There’s harsher drugs on the streets, just more violence on the streets — the weapons and the mental health. Obviously, mental health issues have also increased. So there’s more intensity in terms of all those issues. That does affect our concerns with volunteer safety.”

“The last couple or three years the confrontations have escalated,” said Barnes. “Keep in mind that these people, a lot of them have mental health issues. There’s no support for these people.”

The Toronto Out of the Cold program, which operates at 16 sites including three Catholic parishes, is going to be getting additional “Safety Team Members” from their city-funded support organization, Dixon Hall. 

“These team members use a client-centric approach and work to de-escalate conflict so that physical contact with a guest is always a last resort,” said Dixon Hall spokesperson Laura Stenberg in an e-mail.

The added safety team members may mean that some Out of the Cold sites get fewer support staff from Dixon Hall.

“The first priority of Dixon Hall remains ensuring that guests, volunteers and staff of the Out of the Cold program are safe and supported,” Stenberg said.

In Richmond Hill, the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold, which alternates between 12 sites, has hired more uniformed security staff and put its volunteers through extra training.

“We have very stringent policies and training around what volunteers can and cannot do. They don’t deal with any sort of crisis situations or anything related to safety,” said Summar. “Their volunteer roles have been defined very clearly to just serving and enjoying the program.”

Toronto Out of the Cold programs have been talking with Dixon Hall about improving security over the last two years, said Barnes. 

“Dixon Hall is very adamant that they don’t want the beefed up security guy with the body vest and night stick or something sticking on his belt,” said Barnes.

An emphasis on talking and de-escalating situations is entirely appropriate, but it may not be enough, according to Barnes. 

“Some (Dixon Hall staff) are skilled at that, some aren’t,” Barnes said. “But if the de-escalation doesn’t work, then the next stop-gap is you call the police. By the time the police get there, somebody is going to be hurt.”

The most recent census of Toronto’s homeless population in April 2018 found 8,715 homeless, including 533 sleeping outdoors. In 2017-18, Out of the Cold ran at about 92-per-cent capacity over the course of the winter with over 13,000 overnight stays recorded.

Both the Toronto and Mosaic Out of the Cold programs are ramping up after the first blast of winter dumped snow on the streets and sent the mercury below zero the first two weeks of November. St. Brigid’s opened on Nov. 18 and Mosaic Interfaith was scheduled to open at Temple Har Zion and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at on Nov. 20.

“Unfortunately, that’s the earliest we can open,” said Sumar. 

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