In January, the Out of the Cold Program marked its 25th anniversary of providing meals and temporary shelter to homeless people.

With the support and guidance of Sister Susan Moran, the program was started in 1987 by the students of St. Michael’s school after they befriended a homeless man who was sleeping in one of the school’s doorways. 

Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter.

Following the man’s death, the students and Sr. Susan began discussing ways of reducing homelessness.

Sr. Susan then connected with various faith groups across Toronto with the idea that they would organize groups of volunteers at each Church and Synagogue to provide a safe haven for homeless people.

Faith group volunteers would open their doors one day a week from November to March to provide food and shelter to the homeless.

Originally, the program was only supposed to be a temporary, band-aid solution designed to help those in need make it through hard times. Once the economy rebounded, they thought the program would be discontinued.

“The reality has been that the need for accommodation and food has continued for 25 years,” says Beth Baskin, Social Justice Project coordinator, Toronto Southeast Presbytery, United Church of Canada at Tuesday’s monthly homeless memorial vigil outside the Church of the Holy Trinity.

There are now 19 faith groups and over 2,000 volunteers who feed and house 200 people every night from early November to the end of March.

“It’s not the churches’ job to be holding society together in this way. Governments have to find a way to do that structurally rather than simply through the goodness of some volunteers.”

Over the years, Out of the Cold has become an institutionalized part of Toronto. It gets significant funding from the City of Toronto as well as support staff services from Dixon Hall, a multi-service social services agency located in the East Downtown.

And while that makes Baskin angry, it also motivates her to work with others to make sure their voices are heard and changes are made.

“This isn’t sustainable,” she says. “It’s costing us way more to maintain these band-aids than if we could provide permanent solutions.”

Governments typically spend three or four times more on shelter beds, hospital beds or prison cells than it would cost to permanently house and feed homeless people.

Baskin doesn’t event want to think about where Out of the Cold will be 25 years from now if all levels of government don’t come together and make the kinds of changes needed to reduce homelessness.

“It’s scary,” she says. 

“I’m not sure that those people who are in need in 25 years from now would have enough people around to care for them.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.