$500K to help our area’s home­less

Churches & syn­a­gogues get cash in­fu­sion, but it’s a stop-gap

North Toronto Post - - News - –– Jes­sica Wei

Win­ter is in full swing, and it is nowhere more ev­i­dent than at the Holy Blos­som Tem­ple, at Eglin­ton Av­enue West and Bathurst Street, where the weekly overnight shel­ter sees a nightly ca­pac­ity rate of around 97 per cent.

The shel­ter is an out­post of the Out of the Cold pro­gram (OOTC), which re­ceived $500,000 in ad­di­tional fund­ing from the City of Toronto in Novem­ber. Although that fund­ing has been put to good use, vol­un­teers and staff with OOTC be­lieve that the prob­lem can’t be solved by adding more beds to the city’s overex­tended emer­gency shel­ter sys­tem.

“At 9:30 at night, when the lights go out … when they get there on one grey mat, sleep­ing on this floor,” said Emily Rayson, a long­time vol­un­teer with OOTC at Holy Blos­som, “it gets to me, ev­ery sin­gle year I’ve been do­ing this. Why do they have to be sleep­ing on our base­ment floor? Where can th­ese peo­ple go? I don’t know how you break the cy­cle.”

Be­tween De­cem­ber 2016 and De­cem­ber 2017, the city’s emer­gency shel­ter sys­tem saw an av­er­age nightly oc­cu­pancy in­crease of 1,240 peo­ple. This past Novem­ber, the nightly oc­cu­pancy in­creased to 6,641 peo­ple –– 1,212 more than in the pre­vi­ous De­cem­ber.

De­spite hav­ing added 807 beds for the cur­rent win­ter sea­son, shel­ters and emer­gency respite sites are still rou­tinely hov­er­ing around 98 to 100 per cent ca­pac­ity. At OOTC, the oc­cu­pancy rates are no dif­fer­ent.

“The most re­cent num­bers that I’ve seen for OOTC sug­gest that we’re at 97 per cent ca­pac­ity,” said David Rey­craft, the di­rec­tor of hous­ing ser­vices of Dixon Hall, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that has man­aged the OOTC pro­gram since 2003.

“In­ter­est­ingly, the oc­cu­pancy is com­pa­ra­ble to last year, but we have more beds in the sys­tem this year. There’s this kind of ‘open it and they will come’ Zeit­geist.”

The city has com­mit­ted to open­ing 1,000 new beds by 2020. But de­spite this ag­gres­sive push to­ward open­ing more emer­gency respite sites, ad­vo­cates are call­ing for more af­ford­able hous­ing and sup­port­ive hous­ing.

“It was nice for me to see, for the first time, that this group of peo­ple are be­gin­ning to ask for hous­ing,” said Rey­craft. “Tra­di­tion­ally that hasn’t been what they ask for –– they ask for emer­gency shel­ter re­sponses –– but we do need more af­ford­able hous­ing.”

No­body knows this bet­ter than the front line staff.

“The city opens up more home­less respite sites, but a lot of th­ese peo­ple aren’t home­less,” said An­drea Katz, a fel­low vol­un­teer.

“Does the city talk about that prob­lem enough? There are def­i­nitely peo­ple here who are home­less but there are peo­ple here who are just marginal­ized and need as­sis­tance as well. So they need a dif­fer­ent level of sup­port.”

Although most of their guests are home­less, Katz and Rayson de­scribed some who stay with OOTC as also liv­ing in room­ing houses. Th­ese in­di­vid­u­als of­ten have is­sues with house­mates or oth­er­wise feel un­safe at home.

“They have a sched­ule now,” said Rayson. “All of the Out of the Cold shel­ters have al­most be­come six­month hous­ing. We’ve cre­ated a sys­tem that al­lows them to do that.”

Rey­craft also iden­ti­fied the need for sup­port­ive hous­ing to help al­le­vi­ate the home­less­ness cri­sis.

“Sup­port­ive hous­ing is crit­i­cal for us,” he said. “Many of th­ese peo­ple you would move into hous­ing have all dif­fer­ent chal­lenges that make it dif­fi­cult for them to sus­tain hous­ing, so you want to be able to sup­port them once you move them into hous­ing.”

OOTC is ex­pect­ing a win­ter sim­i­lar to last year’s. With its new fund­ing, it is able to bring on new staff, im­prove the sites and off­set costs as­so­ci­ated with food and vol­un­teers. How­ever, im­prov­ing the pro­gram doesn’t stem the prob­lem.

“We were never sup­posed to be here for this long,” said Rayson.

“This started as an emer­gency shel­ter for the home­less, a band-aid so­lu­tion. It never went away. When we started this thing, we all said, ‘We should be gone in a few years.’ This shouldn’t have to hap­pen.”

This started as an emer­gency shel­ter for the home­less, a band-aid so­lu­tion. It never went away.”

L–R: David Rey­craft, Arys Allen-McPher­son, June Son­berg and Emily Rayson from Out of the Cold

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