Toronto's Out of the Cold program faces higher demand

By 
  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Amanda Inglis and Milton Silcus say they’re getting their “daily bread” and spiritual nourishment at St. Patrick’s Church’s Out of the Cold program.

“St. Patrick’s Church gives us some grounding and support,” Inglis, 40, said.

Inglis and Silcus are part of a growing trend at some Out of the Cold centres in the city. At least two Catholic-affiliated centres at St. Patrick’s Church and the First Interfaith group at St. Matthew’s United Church are reporting an increased demand for their services during the economic downturn.

St. Patrick’s Out of the Cold organizer John Hamilton said there has been a 10-per-cent increase in the number of guests who stay for dinner and overnight. Last year, there was an average of 120 Sunday evening guests for dinner, the same number as the program’s opening on Nov. 22. There were also an average of 65 overnight guests in 2008.

Inglis and Silcus lived on the streets for two-and-a-half years but are now living in community housing. They are currently unemployed and receive disability payments. The couple has been coming to St. Patrick’s for nine years.

Toronto Homeless Facts

  • On any given night there are between 5,000 and 6,500 homeless people in Toronto.
  • 32,000 people each year use Toronto's shelter system.
  • The average stay in a Toronto shelter is 19 days, but for families the average is 60 days.
  • Not all homeless will go to a shelter. The city estimates that about 16 per cent of Toronto's homeless sleep on the street.
  • A 2009 study by St. Michael's Hospital Centre for Research on Inner City Health found that one-third of homeless people in Toronto are immigrants, and 10 per cent are recent immigrants who have lived in Canada less than 10 years.
  • The immigrant homeless are twice as likely to be female, married and accompanied by children.
  • Native people are massively over-represented in the homeless population. Only half a per cent of Torontonians are native, but 15 per cent of Toronto's homeless are native, and aboriginal Canadians make up 26 per cent of the homeless people sleeping on the street.

Source: St. Michael's Hospital Centre for Research on Inner City Health, www.crich.ca .

Like Inglis and Silcus, Hamilton said not all of the program’s guests are homeless but need extra help, especially during these hard economic times. Economic experts may declare the recession over, but that doesn’t mean it’s becoming easier for people working in low paying jobs or living on the streets.

“Everybody is a paycheque (away) from being here,” said Silcus, 40, who was baptized at St. Patrick’s. He lost his job as a longshoreman when the sugar mill he worked at closed after 9/11.

With the recession, Inglis said landscaping and gardening jobs they used to get have dried up because people can’t afford to pay them any more. Inglis, who used to work on Bay Street, says she’s been getting help and turning her life around after losing her job, battling severe depression and kicking drug addiction eight years ago.

At St. Matthew’s United Church, First Interfaith Out of the Cold co-ordinator Lynda Champagne says “demand is unfortunately higher than it’s ever been.”

The program is run jointly by groups from different faiths including Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim volunteers. On Thursday evenings, volunteers serve dinner and the church basement serves as an overnight shelter.

Last year, Champagne said the program was welcoming, on average, its maximum capacity of 120 dinner guests and 45 overnight guests.

During its first week, the program reached its dinner guest limit, had to turn away 20 people and provide guests with a bagged lunch instead. It also welcomed an extra 10 overnight guests.

“Many of our guests suffer from mental illness,” Champagne said. “These illnesses cause them not to be able to live in an apartment for any length of time, keep rules and live a normal life. They need more support than a normal apartment.”

Back at St. Patrick’s, Inglis and Silcus say they keep coming back because the volunteers and priests make them feel at home. Inglis, raised a Baptist, says she wants to take catechism classes and get married at the church.

“There’s been days when we don’t have a penny between us,” Inglis said, “but we have love and laughter.”

For information about Out of the Cold, call (416) 699-6682 or visit www.ootc.ca .

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