Out of the Cold programs shelter untold thousands every winter. Their success points to a bigger failure: society’s chronic indifference to poverty.
By Chelsea Temple Jones
The sun sets early, darkening the sky over Kitchener, Ont., by 6 p.m. on this Monday evening in mid-March. An icy breeze streaks snow across the sidewalk leading to Trinity United. Inside, the recreation hall is lined with four long tables filled with people waiting for their meals, small puddles of melted ice beneath their feet. The musty air swells with conversation, and the yellow glow from the kitchen illuminates a small group of sweating volunteers roasting 120 pounds of pork to feed the crowd.
Above the kitchen is the children’s room, lined with cots. Perched on a blue fleece blanket in the corner, Roxy Lindsay rolls a transparent bag of sequins between her fidgety fingers. She’s picked them off a black skirt she could wear to a job interview if it weren’t so sparkly. Lindsay boasts a 13-year track record for perfect Sunday school attendance at her local United church in New Brunswick. She went on to become a teacher’s aide and have a child of her own. Then, one sunny afternoon four years ago, Lindsay broke her back in a snowmobile accident. She was prescribed OxyContin, a brand-name pain reliever containing oxycodone (often called “hillbilly heroin” for it’s euphoria effect), and she became addicted. “Things went downhill,” she says, rasping. “I got with the wrong guy, and then we broke up. He became jealous, and then my house was burned down.” Her son died in the fire.
Lindsay moved to Ontario, hoping to find addiction treatment. “I did,
but my lifestyle of being a good teacher’s aide, a good mom, I didn’t
have that anymore. I decided to party it up.” She doesn’t go into
detail, but somewhere along the way she landed in jail. She was released
on Valentine’s Day and headed straight to Trinity for a warm meal and a
place to sleep.
Trinity United is one of nine locations in the
Kitchener-Waterloo area that host Out of the Cold, a donation-funded,
volunteer-operated program running from November to April. Homeless
people — who are referred to here as guests, not clients — bounce from
one site to the next throughout the week. Lindsay comes because she’s
trying to kick her addiction, and she has only enough money for
day-to-day meals. She shrugs when I ask her if she works: “No. Yes. No.
Well, street work.” Tonight she’ll hit the streets to make enough money
for tomorrow. She’ll leave her belongings — the skirt, a few sweaters —
behind; her stuff is safer in a church than in a city-run shelter, where
theft is common.
Tonight will be a long night, with
temperatures dropping to -10 C. At Trinity, 250 guests sign in
anonymously for dinner, and a record-breaking 84 stay overnight. Many
require 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls in order to arrive at work on time (it’s
often a long walk). Thirteen of the overnight guests are women. Dennis
Watson has been tallying the numbers for 14 years. His first-ever
headcount was 30 people with no women. Watson tells me the total has
risen steadily over the past 14 years, save for a dip in 2010 when a
local housing project took in 30 people. In 2012, the count has climbed
alarmingly to an average of 60 people a night, 15 of whom are likely to
be women. While there are always fewer women showing up than men, the
number of females seeking shelter has more than doubled since last
The spike in guests that Watson describes reflects a
Canada-wide trend. Across the country, the number of people trying to
survive on the street is rising at a time when the number of churches
that can house them is set to drop. Nobody knows why there are suddenly
more people on the streets. What’s worse, nobody seems to care.
Friday night in Kitchener’s sister city, Waterloo, Ont., and Cathie
Stewart Savage’s scarf is tightly fastened around her face as she tromps
through ankle-deep snow surrounding First United. It’s payday, and the
Out of the Cold site she runs is next to what was once southern
Ontario’s largest liquor store. This evening, its doors are in constant
rotation for customers of all income brackets. Flashlight in hand,
Stewart Savage is searching for half-empty beer cans hidden in the
bushes. She is about to step in a pile of pink vomit, which was once
tonight’s sloppy joe dinner for 116 guests (many vouch for this site’s
food being the tastiest), when two men sharing a cigarette call out to
warn her. Nearby, Stewart Savage sniffs a steaming coffee mug she found
on the sidewalk, pours it in the snow and hollers, “It’s about 40
When Stewart Savage and her husband, Mike Savage, began
hosting Out of the Cold at First United 14 years ago, they were not
expecting an increase in guests — especially not women, with two women’s
shelters opening up 70 beds for women in the area. Inside, walking
through row upon row of mattresses in the recreation hall, she says, “I
used to think any place would be better than the floor of a church, but
Why does a church mattress often beat a bed in an
established shelter? Those who’ve never lived on the streets may
mistakenly assume that shelters are safe, desirable, free of charge and
open to everyone. They may believe that a shelter can somehow protect
people from rape and other violence when beds are only inches apart.
However, several urban shelters have bed bugs, and most are dry
shelters, meaning you won’t be admitted if you’ve had a drink. Stewart
Savage says guests come to Out of the Cold because they feel safe or
because they would otherwise feel alone. Plus, not everyone appreciates
being governed: according to the City of Toronto’s Shelter Standards,
clients are asked for their social insurance number, birthplace and
reason for using the shelter, among other information. A national
database called the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System
(HIFIS) records this information and determines where and when you can
Lindsay said she might show up at First United,
but I don’t see her all night. Another guest, Cory, says Lindsay was in
“bad shape” last night, crying non-stop.
Cory totes a GoodLife
Fitness bag. At 25 years old, he is a part-time dishwasher looking for
work. He makes enough money to attend the gym, which provides warmth,
showers and something to do during the days, but he does not have enough
“We’re letting the government off the hook, big
time,” says Mike Savage, who points out that many people staying
overnight work part time for minimum wage, which isn’t enough. Women, in
particular, account for 70 percent of Canada’s part-time workers,
according to the YWCA’s 2012 report, A Turning Point for Women.
too, is Cathie’s bone to pick: sometimes governments use tax cuts to
subsidize companies that tend to pay part-timers minimum wage, and in
turn the workers must apply to provincial governments to top off their
income through welfare. Currently, the lowest minimum wage is $9.50 per
hour in Saskatchewan; Nunavut’s is the highest at $11 per hour. Welfare
numbers vary across Canada, and they’re all tallied differently. But
suffice to say, as Stewart Savage does, “Survival is a full time job.
You can’t take a day off.”
A tall man with a greasy beard
approaches me. Putting his face close to mine, he says he is a chaplain
at city hall. His teeth are rotting. “You want a blessing?” he asks.
Gesticulating something of a frenzied cross, he holds his Bible near my
“What do those gestures mean?” I ask.
He looks at me
incredulously. “Can’t you feel it? It’s a blessing.” I must seem
confused. “Here,” he says, holding his arms wide for a hug. He clearly
senses my hesitation. “Trust me,” he demands. I move into his long
embrace. He is so thin and tall that even with his layered sweaters, I
can feel his collarbone jutting out against my cheek.
the apathy effect. People don’t care about homeless people, or they hate
them. In author Kathleen Arnold’s words, “The guilt we feel can be so
overwhelming that it is either neutralized or turned back on the
homeless as contempt and rage.” That’s not always the case, to be sure.
Watson has never had to ask for donations to Out of the Cold because
congregations have been kind. Still, homeless people are generally
thought of as second-class citizens — annoyances, really. They are the
objects of abjection and invisibility. Stereotypes abound: dangerous
drunks, people who’d rather live on the streets than work, the
hopelessly addicted or mentally ill, diseased sex workers. In other
words, the undeserving poor.
“There’s shame involved when you . .
. become dependent on others,” says Trinity volunteer Randy Rollo, a
burly man who has lived on the streets and still lives downtown. Some of
the guests here are his friends. “These are amazing people, they’re not
stupid dummies. . . . They’re trying to survive, and what’s everyone
else doing? Kicking them when they’re down and making ignorant, cruel
comments based on no knowledge.” Last week, Rollo saw a local news
report surveying the city’s core, where people reported feeling unsafe
because of vagrancy downtown. “That’s the stupidest — ” he stops,
holding back his anger. “If you were a homeless person, how would that
make you feel?”
As guests sign out on Saturday morning, Cathie
Stewart Savage points out construction workers, a musician, university
graduates. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that they’re all high
school dropouts. When we first started the program, people would bring
their kids and say, ‘That’s what happens if you don’t do well in
Sure, homelessness might be the result of some bad
decisions. “But nobody makes a decision and says, ‘This will make me
poor and that’s okay,’” Stewart Savage says. More often, it’s an
insidiously repetitive down-and-out narrative: You lose your job. You
think you’ll find another fairly soon. You’re wrong. Your savings dry
up. You have to choose between paying for food and medicine or paying
rent — the hunger wins. You’re left without a permanent address, making
it difficult to apply for welfare or jobs, and to vote. You’re living
precariously and none too happy about it. Wait, when did the depression
set in? Rollo estimates at least half of the people sleeping around you
at Out of the Cold experience mental illness and chronic health
problems. There’s no telling whether homelessness is the cause of mental
illness or the result of it, but no matter. Researchers say it’s time
to speak of homelessness and disability in the same breath. So, where
will you go from here?
“My concern is that church buildings are
getting older and the congregations are shrinking,” Stewart Savage says
as she begins hours of morning laundry, cleaning each person’s sheets
for use next week. “What happens when they fall down? Who is going to
take their place? I don’t know.”
A week later, in Toronto, St.
Bridgid’s Roman Catholic Parish is hosting Out of the Cold. This is one
of 17 downtown sites no longer run entirely by churches but operated in
partnership with the City of Toronto’s Dixon Hall agency. The St.
Brigid location alone relies on $500 a week in donations (and tonight,
300 pairs of men’s underwear). The rest comes from the municipal
government. An average of 69 people sleep here each Monday.
Unfortunately, St. Bridgid can only accommodate 60.
staff in neon orange safety vests watch the crowd while volunteers
prepare three flavours of homemade soup in the kitchen. There’s more
policing here than at some Out of the Cold sites outside Toronto, where
volunteers run the operation informally without much ruckus. Carina
Cooke’s job is to oversee the Toronto sites, and she’s most surprised by
the increase in middle-class couples. “They say, ‘Yeah, it will just be
for a few days. We lost our house but it will be okay.’ And then three
weeks later, they’re still here.”
Cooke nods toward the crowd.
Many hold leases during the summer, but the housing conditions are so
deplorable they’d rather church hop over the winter. Some are waiting
for housing. Toronto Community Housing is the largest social housing
provider in Canada, and it has over 68,000 people on its waiting list,
with wait times of up to 12 years. In this parish basement, there are
students, a man with a PhD, an artist. The artist refuses to be
interviewed, but he would like to draw me a picture, can he borrow my
Cooke and I walk a lap around the room. There is a disco
ball hanging from the ceiling, teasing of happier times. Minutes later,
we return to a folded napkin with a sketch of the artist and his friends
sleeping on the street. As a gift, the man also hands me a coupon for
the Garden Halal restaurant, which advertises a veggie roll and fries
for $1. I wonder how much money he has to buy food tomorrow.
on the other side of the hall, Cooke is trying to talk down an irate
guest — at least 200 pounds, mostly muscle, tattoos crawling up his
neck. He’s arguing with two elderly, no-nonsense nuns who must be half
his height and twice his age. They insist he sign in — even with a fake
name — before receiving his meal ticket.
Watching the action
contemplatively is Sister Susan Moran. She has been involved with Out of
the Cold ever since it began at St. Michael’s Catholic high school in
Toronto over 20 years ago. She describes a homeless man named George who
slept outside St. Michael’s in 1987. The students used to visit him,
offering sweaters and food. George was beaten to death that year in a
dispute over drugs. A funeral was arranged, but, wanting to do more, the
teens got permission to use the school’s photography shop to house
people overnight during the cold season. As attendance grew year after
year, so did the program. “Now it’s exploded,” Sister Susan says, eyeing
the soup lineup snaking around the parish basement.
of the Cold has spread nationwide, supported not just by Christians but
by Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths. “I find myself in love with
all the faiths and realize we’re all one,” Sister Susan says. At 74,
the humble nun (who doesn’t wear her Order of Canada pin because she
lost it) is lobbying for more advocacy against homelessness. This
program, she says, can’t last forever. “If you close Out of the Cold,
people say the city will take over, but it won’t.”
been more than enough stories and documentaries and photos,” Rollo says
when I ask him what’s to be done. We’re back at Trinity United in
Kitchener, where we began. “When people don’t know what to do [about
homelessness], they do another study, and they find out the same thing,”
he says. Counting homeless people isn’t the same as understanding why
our communities allow homelessness. Rollo has been with Out of the Cold
for 14 years. “We should have been doing activism from the start.”
is sure why the Out of the Cold demographics are changing. It certainly
isn’t the weather; winters have been milder in recent years, although
the coldest nights draw the most press. Given Out of the Cold’s
informality compared to government-subsidized shelters, tracking
Canada-wide numbers is difficult. The sites in southern Ontario, anyway,
fear they are seeing the beginning of a trend set to spread, and Out of
the Cold’s charity model won’t meet the need forever.
as a society wake up and realize we’re responsible for this, we’re
going to be . . . one of those places where there are cardboard shacks
in the dumps or on the outskirts of the city or under bridges,” Cathie
Stewart Savage says. “People are going to start dying on the streets.”
volunteers and guests are calling for a change in attitudes toward
homelessness that could translate into improved government policies.
They want available, affordable housing, increased wages and accessible
treatment for addictions and mental health. They’re asking us to resist
current understandings of homelessness and create new ones.
meticulous, Watson counts over one thousand Out of the Cold volunteers
in the Kitchener-Waterloo area alone. “What a sight, if we could
mobilize for justice.”
Sheima Benembarek was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005. In 2015, she relocated to Toronto. At first, the city seemed so much bigger, impersonal — and even threatening — until a fateful encounter in the subway one day.
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