Cold wind is blowing outside, but inside the basement of Eastminster United Church, the air is warm and volunteers are milling about. An industrial-style kitchen is full of the sounds of lively chatting and chopping, as the kitchen shift volunteers make a large batch of soup and a nutritious snack. In the dining room, others are assembling tables and chairs and stacking dishes at the ready. It’s Friday night around 4:00 pm, and they’re preparing for guests to arrive.
In this case, “the guests” are the homeless of our city and community, those who are marginally housed or receiving social assistance. The Out of the Cold (OOTC) programs operate all over the city by faith-based organizations in an effort to reduce the homelessness crisis. They generally run from November to March, when the weather is coldest and the risk of overexposure or frostbite is highest.
Many misconceptions occur around the issue of homelessness. Gloria McPherson, Program Coordinator for OOTC at Eastminster says: “People think the homeless on the streets are all down and out or welfare bums, but they’re not. There’s a lot of people here who had an injury at work—they used to be labourers and now they can’t be labourers anymore. Sometimes I think the conception we have is that they don’t deserve to be there, that they’re uneducated or they’re this or they’re that. That’s not the case, especially for the ones who are marginally housed. Toronto is a tough city.”
Since 1992, Out of the Cold on the Danforth has been providing support to the community. The program runs Friday nights throughout the winter, giving homeless people dignity, support, and a place to stay. Up to 130 guests are provided with a multiple-course meal, while 45 beds are available for the night. While at OOTC, the guests can access hot showers, an on-site nurse, and a clothing room where they can pick what they need for free. Those who sleep over are served a full breakfast in the morning and given a bagged lunch for their departure. Many guests say they feel safer at Eastminster’s OOTC than in a shelter, partially due to the zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol.
The program originally started as an effort to help with the increasing demand for supports for the homeless from Toronto’s overwhelmed shelter system. “It was never meant to be a solution,” Gloria says. “[Out of the Cold] was a temporary way of addressing a problem, and the goal was always to have the city and the province step up and provide housing solutions for people.”
In recent months, Out of the Cold has borne the brunt of Toronto’s lack of insight and planning to solve this crisis. “We are meant to be just a seasonal, winter offering to support those in the community that don’t have sufficient housing or funds to purchase food,” Gloria says. Instead, the city has consistently relied on OOTC to do much more than it was meant to do, creating a loss of revenue for the Eastminster building, causing volunteers to do extra fundraising, and resulting in a general feeling of good will being taken advantage of. “The city put [Out of the Cold] right in their plan of how to deal with the homeless crisis and that puts the work on the backs of volunteers,” says Gloria. “It’s plain wrong.”
Despite OOTC’s efforts over the years, the city has only once given a certificate of appreciation and only minimal finances over the last twenty-five years. “Some programs are closing their doors, a) for financial reasons because it costs them a lot to run the program when it’s all fundraising, and b) because they’re saying we’re enabling the city not to do anything,” Gloria says.
According to CBC, almost 100 homeless people died in 2017 in Toronto. With shelters at capacity this winter, the city declared a crisis, and for the first time ever, they asked the OOTC to stay open an extra month. “I said yes, but with protest, because we also don’t know where [the homeless] are going to go on March,” says Gloria. “We’re doing it for the guests, not the city.”
Thanks to local organizations, OOTC has received an outpouring of donations and support. Every Christmas, Sonny’s sells Christmas trees just outside Eastminster and donates a significant portion of the profits to the upkeep of OOTC. “He donates twenty percent of the value of his trees to Out of the Cold programs,” Gloria says. “So he literally pays for almost half of our program each month. Anything we do to boost his sales, boosts the donations that come to us and we rely on that.”
Donations help, but the larger issue still remains. “People don’t realize that although we’re ‘Out of the Cold,’ just as many homeless people die in the summer from dehydration and heat stroke and things like that,” Gloria says. “We’re only a winter solution but there’s got to be a summer solution too.”
Gloria doesn’t think opening more shelters will solve the problem. “Shelters just warehouse people,” she says. “The conditions aren’t great and they’re just in that same cycle where it’s not changing anything.” Her solution involves a kind of “hub” with small studio apartments and on-site staff to provide support and education on basic life skills. Gloria feels that a plan like this will ease the transition out of homelessness and properly integrate people into affordable housing. “Shelters are not cheap. What they’re paying per bed is ridiculous and they could funnel that same money into something that’s actually educating the guests, so they can get out of the system.”
Although OOTC is operated by faith-based organizations such as churches and synagogues, Gloria stresses that it “isn’t a churchy thing.” Less than a third of volunteers are members of Eastminster United, and the rest are from the community. Many of them are regulars, volunteering their Friday nights on a weekly basis to make the homeless more comfortable. Local organizations such as Chester Village and Cobbs Bread make sizable contributions or donations. Everyone does what they can to help. “It doesn’t have to be a big effort; it can be a little effort. It really is the community support that makes the difference,” Gloria says.
How You Can Help
1. As a volunteer-run organization, the Out of the Cold relies on donations to exist. Gloria says they’re always low on “targeted items” such as deodorant, toothpaste, and underwear. Food donations are also welcome, but email first to check what they need from week to week. Monetary donations make a big difference, and a lot of companies provide corporate matching when their employees donate to a cause, doubling the amount received. Check with your employer to see if this is an option.
2. Buy your Christmas tree at Eastminster. The trees are affordable, ranging from $25-$45, and buying one can allow a homeless person to enjoy a meal from the proceeds.
3. Volunteer at Out of the Cold. They’re often short of volunteers once the Christmas season passes, so sign up online for a spot or send the volunteer coordinator an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Sign petitions for the city to provide affordable housing and better aid for the homeless instead of relying on volunteer organizations to shoulder the load.