Where the homeless go on Christmas Day
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion – Homelessness will worsen in January when the Ontario government cancels its community start-up and maintenance benefit, which provided some social assistance recipients with money to pay the rent deposit on an apartment, replace furniture infested with bedbugs or pay overdue utility bills.
December 18, 2012. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
There will be no shortage of volunteers for the two sittings of Christmas dinner at Evangel Hall Mission, a downtown housing centre for Torontonians in need. But when the cleanup is finished after the evening meal, it will still be a winter Tuesday. And on Tuesdays, Evangel Hall runs the only Out of the Cold program in the city.
“I think it is a sad indictment of the lack of affordable housing that people have to spend Christmas at an Out of the Cold location, nevertheless we will be offering a special meal and making the day as festive as possible,” said Joseph Taylor, executive director of Evangel Hall.
But Taylor has a deeper worry. There are only 15 churches and shelters that open their doors to people who need a warm place to spend the night. When Out of the Cold began in the mid-1980s, there were 45. “Volunteers age or burn out or they help at Christmas and that’s not the answer,” Taylor said.
“People have to demand that our political leaders treat housing as a priority. If they keep loading the burden on the charitable sector, they’re going to kill it.”
He admits that he and other compassionate Canadians are partly to blame. “Every time there’s a vacuum, we run to fill it.” But would it be better to let people die of hypothermia or hunger? Would it be better to close the food banks; wind down the Out of the Cold program; stop caring?
He can’t. Neither can any of the other overworked foot soldiers in the fight against poverty.
Evangel Hall is a gem in a city desperately short of affordable housing. The $14.5-million building with 84 rent-geared-to-income units opened six years ago, replacing a crowded three-storey storefront the Presbyterian Church had operated for 93 years.
It is impeccably clean and well-designed with a dedicated medical clinic and rooms for work skills programs and confidential counselling. Although it was intended to give the homeless a chance to get back on their feet and move on, most of the original residents are still there.
They can’t find affordable housing. The supply of rooming houses — normally the cheapest option available — is dwindling as developers knock down old buildings to put up condominiums. In addition to that, they can’t offer a landlord the first and last month’s rent. That problem will worsen in January when the Ontario government cancels its community start-up and maintenance benefit, which provided social assistance recipients who met its qualifications with an $800 lump-sum payment once every 24 months, to provide the rent deposit on an apartment, replace furniture infested with bedbugs or pay overdue utility bills.
Taylor understands that these are straitened times. What he doesn’t understand is why people with the least — those who depend on food banks and homeless shelters and the charity of strangers — fall to the bottom of the priority list when money is tight.
He sees little prospect of more affordable housing being built. “Very few non-profit organizations can come up with the sort of money we raised — roughly $10 million — and we’re still drowning in debt.”
At minimum, he would like to see more rent supplements. He would like to see more condominium developers designing a few units in their buildings as affordable housing, like Tridel is doing in its 62-storey tower at 10 York St. And he would like to see Toronto Community Housing get back into the business of building social housing.
Taylor will be tempted, as he is every Christmas, to ask the folks who show up for kitchen and dining room duty: “Could you help on Boxing Day? Or the day after that?”
But he’ll hold his tongue. He doesn’t want to be ungrateful or denigrate their contribution.
“It’s a band-aid,” Taylor says. “But it’s better than watching a wound bleed.”
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