Out of the Cold program runs into problem with Beach neighbours

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • January 22, 2007

TORONTO - Parishioners at St. Aidan's Anglican Church would like to bring the needy in from out of the cold, if only they could convince area neighbours of their cause.

The Out of the Cold program was to open Jan. 8 at the church until a group of residents in Toronto's affluent Beaches neighbourhood hired lawyer Peter Silverberg to get an injunction to halt the project.

"We think that it's basically fear and anxiety about a new program and with further information these fears and anxieties will go away," said Dr. Michael Chambers, who initiated the Out of the Cold program at St. Aidan's.

When contacted Silverberg declined to give comment.

Many of the fears seemed to have been allayed by a meeting held at the church Jan. 16. It was the second meeting with the local community to discuss the program. Three-hundred people came to the drop-in to talk to police, city staff, Dixon Hall staff, who provide security to all Out of the Cold programs, and volunteers from established programs.

After the meeting, it was announced the program was to begin on Jan. 22.

The original plan was to open up the church gym to 12 homeless men and women one night per week from January to March.

"We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus," said Chambers.

"This year marked the 500th death of a homeless person in Toronto and if we can save one life then it will be worth it."

The Out of the Cold program began in 1987, when Sr. Sue Moran and students from St. Michael's College School founded the first program after the death near the school community of a local homeless man that many had befriended. Out of the Cold sets up as a temporary soup kitchen and overnight shelter, usually inside a church or synagogue. Faith groups have opened about 20 locations in Toronto, each taking turns opening once per week.

Before opening a new location, St. Aidan's churchgoers knocked on doors around the neighbourhood to provide information and ask for community support.

"We are called to be compassionate to the homeless, but we are also called to be compassionate to our neighbours," said St. Aidan's pastor Rev. Stephen Kirkegaard.

Kirkegaard said the Out of the Cold planning committee brought in police to make sure the church met fire and safety regulations. It consulted with local councillor Sandra Bussin, who confirmed that city zoning allowed for a homeless shelter to be run inside a church. The first public meeting was held in October to explain how the program would run. Of the 150 people who showed up, 30 signed up to volunteer and 100 more volunteered in the next few months.

It's not the first time an Out of the Cold program has run into opposition from its neighbours. Holy Blossom Temple in Forest Hill had similar troubles 11 years ago when area residents protested opening a program in the synagogue, which is attached to a Jewish day school.

"They didn't want a bunch of people unfamiliar to them hanging around," said Brooke Sacks, who co-chairs Holy Blossom's Out of the Cold program.

The synagogue and neighbourhood compromised by passing strict program rules where the homeless people aren't supposed to be in the area after or before the program, said Sacks.

Sacks said once the program gets started, neighbours see there is no harm in it.

"We encourage people to observe other programs to see how safe they are and organized they are. Once they've watched it happening they'll realize it's a good thing and there's really no threat."

Several programs have struggled to open due to peoples' preconceived notions about the homeless, said Shannon McGillivray, Dixon Hall program manager.

"Unfortunately, sometimes people feel that homeless people are bad or that they are dangerous when in reality they are just people like the rest of us, only they have fallen on hard times and society sometimes forgets them," said McGillivray in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

"Addiction and mental illness may play a role in someone being homeless but not always. Some folks just can't find affordable housing in Toronto and can't make ends meet because minimum wage is not really a living wage, especially in this city where housing costs are so high."

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