Volunteers at the St. Felix Centre prepare food for Out of the Cold clients in this file photo. The COVID restrictions the program had to abide by last year to shelter and feed the homeless will be in place again this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Out of the Cold under COVID restrictions

  • October 31, 2021

Out of the Cold still isn’t out of the woods as the global pandemic meanders through its fourth wave in Ontario.

Even as Ontario Premier Doug Ford was announcing a schedule for gradually dropping capacity restrictions and masking requirements over the course of the winter, Out of the Cold volunteers were preparing to mount this winter’s campaign under the same restrictions they worked with last year.

“Because of the pandemic we had to stop serving our guests in our parish hall,” said St. Patrick’s Out of the Cold director Antony Man in an e-mail. “Instead, we partner with Good Shepherd Ministries on Queen Street and St. Felix Centre on Augusta Avenue.”

That means no sleeping over in the downtown Toronto parish’s hall, but it does mean 650 individual meals prepared every Sunday by parish volunteers. One hundred and fifty of the servings go to the St. Felix Centre that evening. Monday morning the Good Shepherd sends a van around to pick up 500.

It’s all about the parish doing what it can to support the most vulnerable in their community.

“Because of the pandemic and the insecurity of food, the demands are high,” said Man.

But sleep-overs are just too risky.

“We had discussed it and concluded that it is premature to open the parish hall,” Man said.

It’s much the same picture in Niagara Region where the coalition of churches that make up Out of the Cold have teamed up with Start Me Up Niagara to serve meals seven evenings every week from a rotating roster of church kitchens.

“It’s going to be a repeat of last year,” said former Start Me Up CEO and Out of the Cold volunteer Susan Venditti. “We’re actually pretty proud that we were able to get through the whole season last year.”

In St. Catharines, overnight accommodations for about 40 people will be offered every night at Westminster United. St. Andrew’s United will offer overnight stays in Niagara Falls. Those programs are staffed by Start Me Up professionals. The volunteers will stick to cooking and serving take-out meals.

It’s not ideal, but they’re glad they can do it, said Venditti.

“Out of the Cold is really a ministry of hospitality,” she said. “It’s much more difficult to build relationships when you’re passing someone a meal. But we do our best to make sure the meal is nutritious, to make sure it’s there every day and to make sure that you are served properly.”

The risks of restarting the overnights in church basements with Out of the Cold volunteers are too great, Venditti said.

“We have the safety of the guests and we also have a volunteer profile that’s probably more at risk than the general population, in that we’re all getting a little older. Actually, we are older,” she said.

It isn’t a hard no to overnight guests for the entire winter, but it’s hard to see how both volunteers and guests could be kept safe.

“Since we’re a pretty flexible program, who knows where we’re going to be Feb. 1. But I’m not anticipating too much change at this time,” Venditti said.

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