The onset of November welcomes visible change. Daylight sayings time is over, and with its conclusion comes earlier sunsets and what feels like much shorter days. The mornings are now frost covered and crisp, and I cannot make it to work on my bike without mittens. The weather is more and more winter-like everyday and for many people in our community, this creates challenges that are particular to this time of the year.
Consider, for example, our friends who are without secure or permanent housing. The streets are much easier to deal with when the weather is warm, and the reality is that there are members of the homeless population who will not survive the winter. In 1986, when a homeless man named George froze to death in Toronto, students, priests and teachers from St. Michael’s high school came together to organize what eventually became the Out of the Cold program. Although the program has its roots in Toronto, it exists today in many other cities across Ontario, including Kitchener and Waterloo.
In November, as the first signs of winter appear, the Out of the Cold program begins again. The purpose of the program is to provide temporary shelter and a hot meal on a nightly basis. It relies on a variety of sites—in Kitchener these sites are largely, if not all, churches—to host the program. It operates on a rotational basis, so that each place is only committed to providing accommodations once a week.
The resumption of this program marks the end of what is, for some, a long wait. Every night, this program provides not only a warm place to sleep, but also a place to eat. A full day’s worth of food can be accessed, including dinner in the evening, breakfast in the morning and a bagged lunch to sustain people through the day. When the program ends in April, the people who relied on Out of the Cold for their shelter and food are forced to find alternatives. Other services, like ours or the Men’s Hostel, attempt to fill the void that is created. But as Melissa blogged about in April, these are not as easy or hassle-free to use, which deters people from using them.
Throughout the winter we will make referrals to the various Out of the Cold sites and pass along various surplus food items when we are able to. All this is not to say that Out of the Cold is simply about feeding people and sending them to bed. Although the program aims to meet the basic physical needs of food and shelter, it also recognizes that we each need to feel loved, respected and confident. The key to meeting these needs is in the power of relationships. Patrons and volunteers share their lives with one another, and in the process, they break down the barriers and labels that separate them. This exchange is just as important as the provision of beds and meals, not only for those who receive, but for those who help provide them. We know this first hand through the work we do in our own programs, but also, through the stories our own volunteers share with us. Many of them also volunteer with the Out of the Cold program and really value the fellowship they find there.
Although Out of the Cold will relieve some of the burden on other programs, the colder weather affects more than the homeless population. Winter is filled with more and greater expenses, like the cost of keeping a house warm. This translates into less money for food. As the recent publication of the Hunger Count highlights, most food bank users are in rental housing, and the high cost of housing is a major day to day problem for people in our community. Contrary to popular belief you can be evicted from your home in the winter time and many people living pay cheque to pay cheque are only one financial crisis away from losing everything.
So although Out of the Cold will help meet the needs of some people who use our program, we will continue to encounter busyness as the winter settles in as people try to look after their basic needs and maintain their housing.