Illustration of homeless person sleeping on bench outside a church
People from all walks of life are flocking to homeless programs in church basements and other sites supported by people of all faiths. (Illustration by Marco Cibola)

Topics: Justice | Society

Homeless programs are all too successful, but society fails to care

Thousands seek shelter in churches and Out of the Cold programs, but long-term solutions are not on the table


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 its 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 winter.

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.

It’s  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 proof!”

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 it’s not.”

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 stay somewhere.

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 for rent.

“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.

This, 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 face.

“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.

Call it 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 Andy 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 school.’”

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. Brigid’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. Brigid can only accommodate 60.

Dixon Hall 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 pen?

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.

Now 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.

Today, Out 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.”

“Look, there’s 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.”

Nobody 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.

“Unless we 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.”

Instead, 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.

Ever 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.”


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s November 2012 issue with the title Cold comfort.”

Chelsea Temple Jones is an instructor in disability studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.


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