TORONTO – A toque and a warm sleeping bag can be the difference between life and death for those living on the street when the mercury dips to -30C with the wind chill as we’ve seen already this winter.
With that in mind, 120 or so volunteers gathered Saturday to pack thousands of survival kits for Toronto’s homeless — three of whom have already died during the first few weeks of this year.
“No one should die from the cold,” Jody Steinhauer, founder of Engage in Change, said Saturday at a warehouse on Caledonia Rd. “These kits save lives.”
As volunteers buzzed around her, bopping to music and stuffing gym bags with gloves, hats, toiletries and other items many of us take for granted, Steinhauer explained how Project Winter Survival began as a simple, grassroots idea 16 years ago.
In its first year, the effort provided 100 kits to a handful agencies to be distributed to those in need. This year, a whopping 3,000 kits were supplied to about 160 agencies.
“Unfortunately the need is growing,” Steinhauer said, adding the poor economy has caused the homeless population to swell while shelter space has shrunk thanks to funding cuts.
And accessing the few shelter beds available can be especially difficult for those who drink alcohol, use drugs, suffer from mental illness, have pets or are married, she explained.
Having teenage kids can also be an obstacle, something Mikki Schell learned the hard way.
She and her 15-year-old son, Michael, have been homeless for a year and they’ve been separated the entire time.
“Because of his age and gender, we cannot actually share space together,” Mikki said. “There are no facilities that allow for that.”
Mikki lost her job three-and-a-half years ago and when her Employment Insurance ran out she turned to social assistance.
But with only $600 allotted for housing, she said she fell behind on her rent and ended up losing her apartment.
Since then, Mikki has been staying at a shelter downtown and her son has been living at a group home in Scarborough.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that I only actually had to sleep outside a few times,” she said. “And it wasn’t cold like it is now.”
Mikki said the winter survival kits are “definitely essential” for anyone who is living on the street during the city’s recent extreme cold weather alerts.
Michael said being separated from his mom has been “one of the hardest things in the world.”
“I honestly can’t even put into words how terrible it is,” he said, explaining he only sees his mom once every week or two.
But Michael remains hopeful he and his mom will eventually be together again.
Mikki and Michael’s story illustrates just how easily people can become homeless, Steinhauer said.
“We all know the solution is long-term is housing,” she said. “But that can’t happen overnight.”
In the meantime, Steinhauer said the survival kits can provide some “marginal relief.”
But she would like nothing more than to see the need for Project Winter Survival stamped out.
“There are solutions,” Steinhauer said. “Let’s just hope Mayor John Tory can make those solutions happen.”
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