Jackie Rodriguez has been cooking for the homeless at St. Brigid’s Out of the Cold for about 20 years and hopes to continue this year despite it not being able to open its doors due to the pandemic. Michael Swan

Pandemic forces Out of the Cold to look for other ways to help homeless

  • September 26, 2020

Outside the St. Brigid’s Out of the Cold shelter on the last official day of summer, as trees in the park are threatening to burst into red and gold, 28-year-old Harley was wondering whether this church basement might be a place where he could stay.

The answer is no — not now and not anytime this coming winter. Out of the Cold, the volunteer-led interfaith program which has provided shelter for the homeless throughout Toronto for more than 30 years, will not be opening its doors because of COVID-19. It’s a decision by the city that has left a bitter taste for some of the people involved with the organization as it seeks alternative ways to continue its mission to help the homeless.

“Given the nature of the program model, the rotation of locations each night and use of volunteers, the previous approach is not feasible to operate within Ministry of Health guidelines for congregate settings,” a City of Toronto spokesperson told The Catholic Register.

Instead, the city says Dixon Hall, which has supported Out of the Cold since 2003 with administrative and security services, will operate a “replacement service model” to ensure indoor spaces are available and operate within COVID-19 restrictions.

“The City, Dixon Hall, basically pulled the rug out from under us at the beginning of the summer — no consultation, no ‘thank-you very much for 30 years of service.’ Just, ‘we’re not going to fund you any more, we’re not going to provide security, we’re not going to provide intake workers. So, sayonara,’ ” said St. Brigid Out of the Cold co-ordinator Jim Barnes.

Dixon Hall did not reply to requests for comment.

The Toronto Out of the Cold program operated 16 sites last year, including three Catholic parishes.

The Out of the Cold Foundation said the situation “is still very much evolving” and has vowed to “continue to support the efforts of the dedicated volunteers and co-ordinators who run the individual Out of the Cold programs however they choose to proceed with their operations this season,” said a statement from president Craig Smeaton and executive director Liz Eustace. “Once decisions are made on how each site will approach their season to meet the increasing need of those experiencing homelessness, we’ll be here to offer whatever financial support we can.”

For now, guys like Harley, who has been on the road since he left his Lethbridge, Alta., home at the age of 16, aren’t going to be able to eat Jackie Rodriguez’s cooking. He won’t have the chance to talk to the folks who clear the tables after dinner then set out 60 foam mats on the floor of the old St. Catherine of Siena parish hall on the Danforth.

Rodriguez, who started cooking for Out of the Cold in her 60s and is now past 80, hopes she can keep cooking for the homeless this winter. But she’s going to miss meeting them.

“With the city removing our funding, we’re kind of at a loss,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to miss them as well as they will miss us. It’s just a shame.”

The St. Brigid’s crew of about a dozen sous chefs who help Rodriguez prepare meals for 120 on Monday nights aren’t just giving up. The St. Brigid’s program is looking for ways to get hot meals out to people who need them. After 20 years operating in the disused basement parish hall at St. Catherine of Siena, they’ve cast their eyes further south at the food bank run out of St. Ann’s at Gerrard Street near Broadview.

Rodriguez hasn’t figured out yet how they’re going to replace the big, professional kitchen they had at St. Catherine of Siena. But she’s convinced they will find a way.

“At least we will know they’re getting a good meal — even if it’s takeout,” she said.

The more ambitious plan for St. Brigid’s might be to supplement a partnership with St. Ann’s by sending out a van.

It’s all in the planning stages, but they’re not the only ones thinking along those lines.

Across town at St. Patrick’s, Out of the Cold volunteers have been in talks with Street Patrol, the summer program that delivers sandwiches and conversation to the homeless in city parks. They’re talking about launching a van that might be able to deliver hot meals and warm clothes to the homeless. At a minimum, the St. Pat’s cooking crew hopes to prepare meals and distribute them through the city shelter system, said volunteer cook Fr. Santo Arrigo.

“We’re basically trying to envision the possibility of going out and doing something,” Arrigo said. “It’s just putting our energies and our ability to support the other programs.”

Nobody at Out of the Cold is under the illusion they could have operated this winter.

“Most of our volunteers are in that age group that is very susceptible to the virus,” said Barnes. “St. Brigid’s, most nights, we had 60 people sleeping on the floor of St. Catherine of Siena Church. So the spacing was basically non-existent. You might have three feet at most between the mats on the floor. It was a wonder that more diseases and viruses weren’t spread in that kind of environment.”

Arrigo said that Out of the Cold deserved better treatment by the government. “The City sees it as their program,” he said. “For a long time they have not valued the contributions of not only the volunteers but donors who have allowed them to get off scot-free.”

A City of Toronto spokesperson said Out of the Cold site co-ordinators are being “encouraged to consider other services that volunteers may want to provide to support vulnerable residents” while adhering to the pandemic restrictions.

Meanwhile, the municipal government of York Region north of Toronto is working closely with the Mosaic Out of the Cold to maintain services to the homeless.

“There’s a whole process to go through with government, public health. So we’re just kind of doing those discussions right now,” said co-ordinator Rehana Sumar. “Everyone is in agreement that we need to run the program. But the question is how and when.”

The how is not going to involve volunteers in close contact with the homeless, and may not involve nights spent at churches, mosques and synagogues, Sumar said.

“What we want to do is maintain that community portion of Out of the Cold,” she said. “We don’t want to lose our partners and our volunteers.”

COVID-19 has governments more focused on real housing solutions, given the obvious danger that a chronically homeless population drifting from shelters to drop-ins poses to public health. The focus this year will be on ensuring that a night at Out of the Cold leads to housing and supports, said Sumar.

“We will be focused more on being a flow-through and connecting people with actual housing,” she said.

Last year the suburban Out of the Cold saw shelter visits increase by 32 per cent to over 6,000. Meal service jumped 37 per cent, to over 18,000 hot meals served.

Arrigo would love to see Out of the Cold shut down. When it started in 1987 it was an emergency, band-aid solution to the then-shocking new reality of homeless people freezing to death on the streets of Toronto. Arrigo would prefer to live in a city that didn’t need Out of the Cold, but after more than 20 years of serving meals and helping the homeless bed down Wednesday nights, he knows it’s just not that simple.

“There’s going to be a very large population — due to mental illness and drug use and so forth — who will not go into any type of institutionalized manner. And that includes supportive housing. They don’t want to go to (City) shelters, let alone housing.”

A combination of trauma, mental illness and life on the street has left many unable to trust institutions or systems, said Arrigo.

“The reality is that there are going to be those for whom Out of the Cold is the only place they feel confident and safe,” he said. 

The volunteers at Street Patrol are convinced they will be needed beyond the summer season, said Lucio Abbruzzese.

“If the government is saying we can’t do it inside, then we have to adapt to make it safe for everyone,” said Abbruzzese. “The great thing about Out of the Cold and Street Patrol and things like that is that it isn’t an anonymous donation. You are helping someone face-to-face. You develop a relationship.”

It’s also not about solving homelessness.

“It’s a walking prayer,” Abbruzzese, a religion teacher at Michael Power-St. Joseph High School, said. “A two- to three-hour walking prayer. In that sense it’s part of our faith journey, to put words into action.”

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