A local charity distributed almost $500,000 worth of sleeping bags, clothing and other necessities to Toronto’s homeless this weekend, but organizers said that meets only a fraction of the demand as shelters continue to be overwhelmed by the extreme cold this winter.
Engage and Change’s founder Jody Steinhauer told a crowded warehouse of more than 100 volunteers Saturday that in her almost 20 years running the charity, she’s never seen shelters and service agencies scramble so desperately for supplies.
“Three out of five days this week, we received calls from respite and emergency shelters in a panic that the number (of clients) was twice as much as they’d anticipated,” Steinhauer said. “We had to rush supplies down.”
Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services, which runs three respite centres in Toronto, were packed this week with people needing a place to stay, said manager Greg Rogers. He called Engage and Change for help and they delivered 74 blankets in 25 hours.
“(This winter has) exceeded what we expected, and there’s way more people on the streets than anybody expected,” Rogers said. “But the homeless don’t need your sympathy. They need your help.”
Moss Park Armoury was near capacity Saturday after it opened as an extra shelter space last week. Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health extended an extreme cold weather alert as temperatures dropped to -25 C with the wind chill.
Patricia Anderson, manager of partnership development for the city’s shelter, support and housing administration, told the Star in an email that there were 103 people in the armoury around midday. She said numbers have been at or near capacity as people come and go each hour.
Staff at Moss Park Armoury helped moved people to beds at Birchmount Residence, Seaton House and New Hope Leslieville, which opened on Jan. 11 as a shelter for men, Anderson said. Two warming centres were also opened for 24-hour service — Metro Hall and Regent Park Community Centre.
Friday night, outreach teams approached 25 people outdoors, and five accepted service, Anderson said, adding that a team checked in at the Moss Park safe injection site and transported four people to shelters.
Overdose prevention worker Molly Bannerman said having the Moss Park armoury and Regent Park Community Centre open has been beneficial to her clients. “We’ve seen an improvement in terms of being able to do overdose prevention work knowing we can get people to the armoury or Regent Park and we’ve heard good things about these two sites.”
The federal government announced that the use of Moss Park Armoury would be extended to Jan. 29. After that, a shelter will be set up at the province’s defunct York Detention Centre.
But these efforts still aren’t enough, Steinhauer said Saturday.
“This is about a collaborative partnership because the government can’t help the people on the streets as much as needed,” she said to volunteers who attempted to make a dent in social service agencies and homeless shelters’ requests for a total of 13,000 “winter survival” kits.
They packed 3,000 backpacks each containing a sleeping bag, gloves, hat, socks, snack, reusable water bottle and personal hygiene products, worth a total of $450,000, and delivered them to 170 organizations across Toronto and the GTA. More kits will be assembled this winter as donations come in.
Outside the non-profit community agency Street Health, a group of clients gathered around an Engage and Change van filled with the bright blue backpacks.
“Having a survival kit, I will now survive,” said an excited Sean Devonish. He is homeless and sleeps in shelters, on friends’ couches, or outside at Moss Park.
“It’s killer out there these past three weeks. Being on the streets all the time, I’m always cold,” he said.
Street Health fundraiser Cathy Callaghan said giving out the kits is a way to reach people who need help.
“They help us build relationships,” Callaghan said. “Some of these people have had negative experiences and need basic human kindness so they can take steps toward improving their well-being.”