Faith communities’ Out of the Cold programs to help homeless people face staffing and health regulation challenges

This Beach Metro Community News file photo shows volunteers serving food at an Out of the Cold program at St. Aidan Anglican Church on Queen Street East in 2017.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As City of Toronto officials wrestle over how to allocate 2023’s budget, thousands of Torontonians experiencing homelessness have been left desperately looking for a place to keep warm.

Many of them are finding shelter inside TTC stations or on buses, streetcars or subway trains. Others seek refuge in hospital emergency rooms, adding pressure to an already stressed medical system.

Earlier this month, Toronto Council voted against a motion put forward by the Board of Health that requested warming centres be open 24/7 until more favourable temperatures in April.

The motion suggested that warming spaces need to be open at much warmer temperatures than the current threshold of -15C (-20 with a wind chill).

Following consultation from city staff, 15 out of 26 council members agreed with a different motion that said prioritizing warming centres was not in the City of Toronto’s best financial interest at the moment as services such as transportation were seeing budget cuts in order to pay for other pressing demands.

City of Toronto staff has estimated it would cost $400,000 to run a single warming centre for one month. This prompted Toronto Council to amend the 2023 budget, allocating $800,000 to open one additional 24/7 warming centre until mid-April of this year.

During the Feb. 8 Council meeting, another proposal called for faith groups to provide additional support when it comes to offering up space for warming centres and overnight shelter services for homeless people.

Michael Van Dusen, a member of the Beaches-East York Interfaith Coalition, told Beach Metro Community News that he believes this is a complex matter and not one that should necessarily paint councillors in a negative light.

“I have some sympathy for the situation that they’re in,” said Van Dusen.

He recalled a conversation with an unspecified councillor about their dilemma. The feedback was that Toronto currently has a few facilities that might serve as warming centres, but these have after-school programs for children and programs for senior citizens also running in them.

“Do we cancel those?” Van Dusen remembered the councillor saying.

Van Dusen said that the religious groups Toronto Council is asking to help will also face similar problems as they too have programs and services during the day that would hinder their ability to provide 24/7 care.

In the past, Van Dusen has been involved in the Out of the Cold program which ran from 2010 until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The program, hosted inside St. Aidan Anglican Church on Queen Street East in the Beach before temporarily moving to Beach United Church, provided overnight accommodation and shelter for those in need.

Due to church programs, there needed to be coordination between the facilities and faith groups that were providing these temporary shelters, he said. This appears to, once again, be the only feasible way for religious organizations to get involved.

“The question is, would this model be acceptable to city health (department) because this was a model for spreading COVID-19.” said Van Dusen of the waying the Out of the Cold shelters operated.. “Are we confident enough in our vaccines and our personal protections to put that model back in place?”

The Out of the Cold program was shut down due to this very concern during the pandemic.

Although Van Dusen saw the success of that program while it functioned, he said that a 24/7 service is a completely different ball game which will require a lot of more preparation and coordination to be a success.

“It’s one thing to do it one night a week from three o’clock till eight o’clock the next morning,” he said. “It’s another to have a 24-hour program. We would need additional staffing support.”

This was one of the major issues the City of Toronto staff raised about the 24/7 warming centre proposal before councillors earlier this month. They raised the alarm on an inability to staff such facilities.

Dixon Hall, a social support agency that provides a wide range of integrated services for about 10,000 people annually, usually provides services for such programs.

When the City of Toronto was using hotel space during the pandemic to help people experiencing homelessness, Dixon Hall was essential in providing trained staff for the hotel sites.

“This is the group that has been doing the staffing for the shelters,” said Van Dusen.

Such programs require staff members with de-escalation training who specialize in dealing with people with addiction or other mental health issues. Van Dusen said that staffing issues will be a major challenge when it comes to opening up additional warming centres and overnight shelters.

“People got sick. People got burnt out,” said Van Dusen of the people working in such facilities. “There aren’t a whole lot of people sitting around with the expertise to deal with street involved people.”

Although this explains city’s concerns about staffing, it is unclear why other groups who provide such services could not be called upon.

“There’s nothing stopping the city from approaching other groups,” said Van Dusen. “Dixon Hall doesn’t have an exclusive on this.”

A representative from Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford’s office confirmed that, apart from Dixon Hall, there are two other pre-qualified organizations that are available to assist with staffing warming centres and shelters. These are Fred Victor (a social service charitable organization) and Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre.

Van Dusen said that the church he is a deacon at, St. Aidan, would be willing to recruit people to help but acknowledged it would be a difficult task since their volunteer base is of an older demographic and many of them are retired.

It would be quite the task for local faith groups to recruit enough qualified volunteers to operate a warming centre at all hours, everyday. Apart from the staffing issues, there is also the hurdle brought on by the change in the City of Toronto’s overnight accommodation guidelines for shelters.

During the Out of the Cold program, churches utilized mats for people to rest at night. These were convenient as they could easily be stacked up and put aside once guests moved on to the next location. However, Van Dusen said city guidelines now prohibit the use of mats for people sleeping overnight.

“They want proper raised beds with mattresses,” he said. “So with purchasing, setting up every day, taking down, cleaning, etc… that all becomes a more complicated routine.”

Although the capital expense for these beds can be provided by fundraising or other means, storage space becomes the new issue, said Van Dusen. When it ran its Out of the Cold program, St Aidan provided space and mats for 25 people.

“There are requirements that have to be reviewed and examined,” said Van Dusen.

“We are happy to participate in finding a solution but also recognize that Out of the Cold and shelters are not fundamental solutions.”

He highlighted that the real issue is homelessness and lack of a stable environment in a city facing an affordability crisis. If the City of Toronto is serious about helping the homeless, then the lack of affordable housing needs to be addressed with more urgency, said Van Dusen.

He said that urgency needs to be felt and acted on by all levels of government as the problem goes beyond Toronto’s municipal boundaries.

“But we citizens have to do a better job of advocating with both the provincial and federal government to fund the city to help [fix] this,” said Van Dusen. “These are citizens of the country. It’s not just the city’s responsibility.”

According to statistics presented to Toronto Council during the Feb. 8 meeting, the provincial government spent $97 million on the housing crisis in 2022 while the federal government spent $72 million. The City of Toronto spent $457 million in the same year.

Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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