Homeless, Why homeless?

Homelessness – not simply defined as “absolutely without shelter” or “the chronically homeless” – is a plague on our society, sapping the health of our communities.

homelessness homeless #whyhomeless

home-less


There’s been a hiatus here at the MissionLog as I’ve transitioned from a full time outreach worker to the homeless with Project417  back to a more traditional career as a phone guy in the telecommunications industry. Reasons?  Ask me offline – but at the core is a realization that volunteerism and community development is driven by ordinary people working ordinary jobs who have the desire, opportunity and ability to give back.  And I’m about as ordinary as they come. I’m tired of homeless friends who die without hope of ever having a home again.

I still have a vision:  to definitively identify the root cause of homelessness and find the cure.  Homelessness is not a poverty issue. It’s not simple economics, nor is it a self-inflicted wound.  It is complex. It is pervasive.

So I’m working towards that end by founding The Whyhomeless Movement – a grassroots campaign to really help the homeless. This can’t be left to governments. It’s our city, our community, our village.  Joining the WhyHomeless Movement is easy. Start by visiting Twitter and tweeting homelessness issues with the #whyhomeless hashtag. Search for people who are making a difference and tweet their story.  Tweet out and re-tweet links to sites on the web that make a difference in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness.  Follow me at – http://twitter.com/canayjun and let me know you’ve joined the WhyHomeless Movement.

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Homeless prefer grassroots Out of the Cold program versus city run shelters

It’s spring right? I mean it’s getting warmer right?  Well, I don’t know about where you live, but here in Toronto there has been a dearth of fine spring weather. We’ve had more than our share it seems of unseasonably cold weather, especially cold, blustery winds and the perennial April showers. Most of us, we live with it, it’s an annual thing – how soon will it warm up – and doesn’t seem to affect our daily routine more than getting the car out of the garage and walking from the parking lot to work or other destinations. To our homeless friends on the street however, it is much more than an inconvenience.

Out of the Cold: for the homeless

Out of the Cold: for the homeless

Toronto’s Out of the Cold program has wrapped up again for another season. What this means for the few hundred homeless people who attend the Out of the Cold programs is that they are once again “Out on the Streets”. I was out with a small volunteer group a couple of weeks ago with the regular Project417 Sandwich Run outreach to the homeless on a Monday night. The streets have been particularly quieter this winter as far as the presence of the homeless (more on this later) but most of our route was busier that night and as we arrived at Nathan Phillips Square at the Toronto City Hall, there was a marked increase in our homeless friends that I haven’t seen since last fall.

Five years ago
, it was very different at city hall. Then Mayor Mel Lastman had unofficially condoned the homeless sleeping outside city hall all around Nathan Phillips Square “if they had no other shelter”. It was a year round phenomenon with upwards of two hundred people sleeping in a cardboard jungle right next to the front doors of city hall or just bundled up in sleeping bags on every available bench and corner protected from the wind and elements. That whole period in Toronto’s homelessness saga deserves a more detailed analysis. There had been a marked population boom when Home Depot and the city shut down Tent City down by the harbour, but suffice to say that upon the ascension to power of Mayor David Miller, the official policy changed, Streets to Homes was born, the 100 plus bed Edwards street shelter opened (now closed and slated for “affordable” housing) and city security quickly turfed the homeless residents of Nathan Phillips Square. This prompted one homeless bard to pen a lilting country tune, “How do You Sleep”, dedicated to Mayor Miller. One woman, who had slept on the Square for a few years, simply moved down a couple blocks onto a hot air ventilating grate across from a major hotel, where we see her every night we are on the street – yes, that’s right, she has slept in that exposed sidewalk location every night for the last five years. Again, Mayor Miller has demonstrated that he is not unfeeling when it comes to homelessness and more independent study is required of the touted success of the Streets to Homes program he championed, but this blog is about our friends still sleeping outside at City Hall.

Homeless on Queen Street W., Toronto

Homeless on Queen Street W., Toronto

During the winter months, Nathan Phillips Square is one of the stops on our Project417 Sandwich Run that has several routes spanning the downtown core from about Bathurst out to Parliament and from Bloor down to the Gardiner Expressway (with a van route that reaches more outlying areas). This winter – we go out on sandwich runs even during cold weather alerts of which there were many this year in temperatures below minus twenty – there has generally been only two or three homeless men and women sleeping at city hall. There has almost always been at least one – our dear friend Randy*, a double amputee, who sleeps there sitting upright in his wheelchair with his sleeping bag upside down over his head. During the recent celebrated Earth Hour on Nathan Phillips Square (I’ve never encountered such bright lights and high powered amplified music during any other “blackout”), we spent almost three quarters of an hour talking to Randy and looking on at the eco-revellers from Randy’s dark, hidden alcove just steps from the celebration. Randy practices “lights out” 365 days a year, except for the daily charge his wheelchair battery receives at a friend’s close by. Streets to Homes outreach workers are in constant contact with anyone, including Randy, who sleeps at city hall, but so far have been ineffective in convincing many chronically homeless men and women like him to choose the severely limited housing options available. [*Randy is not his real name]

Now during the spring, summer and fall
, the number of our homeless friends sleeping on Nathan Phillips still rises to more than a dozen, sometimes double that. On the recent Monday night, we had no sooner approached Randy than I noticed there were several more homeless in view under the walkway. As soon as they noticed us, they literally ran over, happy to see us, recognizing the tell tale bag lunches out team carries. “Hey Andy, we’re back”, a couple shouted. I’ve known many of them for almost ten years going back to the first time I ventured out on the streets to help the homeless with Project417 (Our director, Joe Elkerton has been performing outreach to the street homeless almost twenty years in Toronto). “Hey, I’m glad to see you!”,  I answered back, but in truth,  I was disturbed and profoundly saddened to see their familiar faces. Yes, they’re my friends and yes I missed them over the winter, but I had hoped that some had found a place to call home in the last four months.

The reason they are back out on the streets at night is, as I mentioned at the start, the end of the Out of the Cold Program until next November. For those of you who don’t know, or who may have been misinformed, Out of the Cold is not a City of Toronto or other level of government program. What it is,  is a grassroots success story – a faith based program started by Sister Susan Moran and her St. Michael’s School students back in 1987 and a coalition of  local downtown Christian church communities. Indeed it has developed into a multi-faith initiative with representation at 23 facilities from different faith and organizations taking part now. Very simply, the model is:  local downtown churches open their doors one night a week to provide a hot meal and a place to sleep “out of the cold”. In Toronto, more than three thousand volunteers help every winter to feed and provide shelter to about five hundred of our homeless friends. The majority of the food, materials, supplies, shelter and other costs are funded by the local church members. (Note – The city does fund the program peripherally – a local non-profit social service agency -currently Dixon Hall- has an annual contract to send one or two safety and security personnel to some sites, some transportation of guests and the supply/ laundering of a limited number of blankets and sleeping mats. They also provide counselling, housing worker and referral services to the guests. A separate community health care provider offers a registered nurse at each location) Only 16 of the churches fully opt in to these city services with several preferring the freedom and intimacy of program delivery funded and guided by their own community resources and principals. This model has spread nationwide and Sister Susan was recognized with the Order of Canada in 2006 for her contribution.

Why the streets see a surge of the over five hundred homeless when Out of the Cold ends is because the majority of them would not step foot in a city run shelter. They just plain like the Out of the Cold program sites and the volunteers who run them. They tell me the food is better by far – the people are friendlier – the rules less stringent – the atmosphere more inviting and they enjoy the other programs run concurrent to the Out of the Cold like, music nights, sports, foodbanks, clothing banks, crafts and personal hygiene care services. The sleeping arrangements are often more primitive than city run shelters, usually just thin mats on the floor placed in open areas like church gyms, but still our homeless friends praise the program and bemoan the fact that it runs only November to April.

There are over three thousand city run emergency shelter beds at numerous locations from small 20 to 30 bed operations to the 600 bed monster on George Street – Seaton House, (affectionately dubbed Satan House by it’s inhabitants) and this number has dropped due to budget cuts and the questionable recommendations of the infamous city sponsored “homeless count census” – a limited, one day snapshot of street populations. The Out of the Cold program has remained stable or grown over the same period. Our homeless friends eagerly attend Out of the Cold shelters, many making the trek across the city several nights a week to the next church location that is open that night. There is one Out of the Cold program that operates more than one night a week.  University Settlement House, an independent non-profit, United Way partner agency and City of Toronto supported community center next to the Grange Park,  runs an Out of the Cold Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter and Saturdays, Sundays only in the summer. It is one of the best liked shelters amongst our street friends, and they all miss Fridays now that spring has come.

Love on the street

Love on the street

It’s time the city reviewed their emergency shelter programs and borrowed a page from the Out of the Cold program’s success story. The city shelters are efficiently run, relatively clean and safe to a certain degree – but they are still shunned by many of the homeless. Many lack the humanity and compassion shown to them by Out of the Cold volunteer efforts. Our friends are homeless – not just house-less. What is the distinction? What makes a house a home? – LOVE – A commodity in short supply evidently when payed for by tax dollars and delivered by bureaucrats. Thank God, Toronto’s faith community has a surfeit of love and compassion – I only wish, for the five hundred more men and women we’ll be serving now out on the streets with the Project417 sandwich runs,  that communities could see that people need to come in out of the cold year round.

If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to one of the local Toronto Out of the Cold sites, the best way is to contact them directly.  There is no formal or central  “Out of the Cold” foundation to receive donations, each location is self-supporting through their local congregations – and the OOTC schedule link above is maintained by Dixon Hall, a separate non-profit. So I’ve taken the time to compile this list of the 2008/2009  Out of the Cold locations:

Knox Presbyterian Youth Dinner & Foodbank

630 Spadina Ave (no overnight program)

University Settlement House

23 Grange Rd. Year round Out of the Cold program

St. Patrick’s Church

141 McCaul Street at Dundas

St. Margaret’s Church

156 – 6th Street (Islington and Birmingham)

Evangel Hall

552 Adelaide,   E. of Bathurst

York Region Mosaic Interfaith community

Yorkminister Park Baptist

1585 Yonge Street,  N. of St. Clair

Holy Blossom Temple

1950 Bathurst at Eglinton

Eastminster  United

310 Danforth Ave. at Chester

Blythwood Road Baptist

80 Blythwood Road
N of Yonge/Eglington

St. Matthew’s /  Our Lady Peace

3962 BloorSt W

St. Brigid’s

Woodbine & Danforth

Beth Sholom / Beth Tzedec
1445 Eglinton Ave W

First Interfaith at St. Matthew’s

729 St. Clair Ave. W

All Saints Kingsway Anglican

2850 Bloor W

Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue

100 Elder St

Chinese Gospel Church

450 Dundas W

Knox United

Agincourt

St. Aidan’s

70 Silver Birch Ave

St. Michaels Cathedral

66 Bond Street (St. Mike’s parish)

Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship 1307 Bloor St. W;
(Overnight tba Community dinner only, year round)

To volunteer for a Project417 Sandwich Run to the homeless visit Project417.com and check our online volunteer calendar and read about other volunteers’ stories. More than two thousand people helped us last year – come on out and see!

Winnipeg Red River Flood Watch – Saturday, April 11

Flood Update – Monday April 13 – click here for Canada News Blog

::

News Alerts – Sunday, April 12, 2009

Flooding, evacuations and rooftop rescues of stranded residents in St. Andrews and St. Clements Saturday night – Major flooding caused by ice jams – many homes damaged by ice as well as flood water (more)

Red River Flood Watch – April 11, 2009 – Updates: Winnipeg, Manitoba area and Fargo, North Dakota

Alerts – Saturday, April 11

EmergWeb Updates – City of Winnipeg – Local calling area, call 311

At-risk property owners still required to leave dikes in place.
Ice jams moving slowly northward, somewhat reducing threat
Flyover of river system shows positive change in water and ice conditions this morning
Volunteer efforts not required at this time

More Updates –

Winnipeg flood response eased but ice jams still greatest threat:
The Floodway continues to flow smoothly and a major ice jam dislodged Friday -resulting in a few hundred volunteers being sent home as flood threat eased. The area is not entirely past all risk of flooding due to the presence of ice in the floodway, which is not meant to be opened in the presence of major ice flows. At least one large ice pan is still in the floodway – this has the risk of causing another ice jam and flooding.

:: photo Angela Ward / Winnipeg Free Press

Areas at the greatest risk of flooding, are north of Winnipeg , concentrated for now in Selkirk, although there has been some flooding to the south as well. At the Manitoba U.S border area Highway 75 has been closed for a few days and should remain so for another week or so. It is also difficult to say what the impact will be of the water diverted through the Floodway on ice jams to the north. Because ice is flowing through the Floodway, when it exits the northern outlet, all the ice will then meet existing ice jams near Selkirk and other communities if they have not dislodged by then.

The outlook is that flooding will still come – the slow moving Red River crest is in the Emerson to Letellier area and is expected at Morris on Monday. It should reach the south end of Winnipeg on Thursday. Warmer temperatures expected Sunday and Monday will also speed the spring thaw and increase local surface runoff into the river basin.

North Dakota , the Fargo area, is seeing a second major crest in the Red River . Though not as severe as the end of March when many were evacuated, threats to dikes are severe and flooding is taking place in several areas. Manitoba residents will also have to be on the lookout for this second wave of elevated river levels as it moves north into the region again.

There are no plans to send out our Toronto team of volunteers yet as the situation is being handled well by local volunteers. I’ll continue posting the updates both at the Canada News blog as well as her on the MissionLog from WordPress.com and will post volunteer opportunities for Toronto area folks wishing to get involved at the Project417 website – project417.com

Winnipeg flood officials increase estimate of homes at risk

Red River Flood Watch: April 1, 2009

Winnipeg, Manitoba – Fargo, North Dakota

In North Dakota, the risk of flooding from the cresting Red River is not over, but flood fears have eased with the levels at 11.5 meters being below the permanent floodwall level.

However in Manitoba, in the midst of a severe spring snowstorm, the risk of flooding has been escalated by local officials. According to news reports [cbc.ca] the number of homes in Winnipeg at risk of flooding from the rising Red River has been increased from 80 to 140 homes, with residents being urged to add at least a foot of sandbag to existing floodwalls.

Winnipeg flood officials increase estimate of homes at risk

The threat posed by the spreading ice jams is severe, with at least four locations in the city limits identified as possible ice jam locations. North of Winnipeg, the current snowstorm is hampering flood protection efforts as ice jams increase and the areas subject to flooding as a result have been expanded. Selkirk is still under a declared state of emergency in expectation of extensive flooding due to the ice jams.

The river is now expected to crest on Sunday, April 6th.

Other online flood watch resources –

Winnipeg EmergWeb –
Winnipeg crews continue working to respond to rising river levels and prepare for possible ice jams.

Manitoba EMO – Emergency Measures organization –  The Salvation Army is providing meals and refreshments to people working on the flood-fighting efforts north of Winnipeg and in Winnipeg.

Canada News – Spring storm hindering flood protection efforts north of Winnipeg

CBC Manitoba Flood Watch – ice cutting machine plunges through river ice north of Winnipeg

Project417 coordinators will meet tomorrow with Salvation Army EDS manager to determine volunteer deployment possibility. More updates soon…

Millard Fuller – Founder of Habitat for Humanity Dies

Millard Fuller, 74 – the founder of Habitat for Humanity – passed away suddenly early Tuesday morning. 

Former President Jimmy Carter issued a statement in which he called Fuller “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. He used his remarkable gifts as an entrepreneur for the benefit of millions of needy people around the world by providing them with decent housing,” Carter said in the statement. “As the founder of Habitat for Humanity and later the Fuller Center for Housing, he was an inspiration to me, other members of our family and an untold number of volunteers who worked side-by-side under his leadership.”

After Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity it grew into a worldwide volunteer organization that has provided shelter to over 1.5 million people by funding and building low cost, non-profit homes. There are Habitat for Humanity sites in Toronto – condominium townhomes,  just south of King Street in the Corktown neighborhood. After being ousted by the Habitat board of directors over unfounded corporate allegations which were later proven false, Millard Fuller continued the work he had started by starting the Fuller Center for Housing which continues with its goal of eliminating poverty through housing.

The family is planning a memorial service for later in the month.  Linda Fuller, Millard’s wife of 49 years and the co-founder of Habitat and The Fuller Center, said that “great strides have been made toward fulfilling Millard’s vision of eliminating poverty housing around the world, but that there is still tremendous work to be done. Millard would want us to carry on with faith and strength”.

I was fortunate enough to hear Millard speak in 2008 at the Ontario Prayer Breakfast.  He truly was a remarkable man.  He reinforced my view that the root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing.  Please remember Millard’s wife Linda, and his family and staff during this time of sadness and celebration. Contact us at Project417 to find out how you can volunteer in a rebuilding project in New Orleans or Galveston County, Texas.

Toronto Tragedy – Homeless Man Burns to Death Outside Bank ATM

Homelessness in Toronto has been called a disaster. Now it has progressed to the  point of tragic calamity. The Saturday Toronto Star (Jan 10 2009) reports that John Massie, 46, (known to us here by his street name – Classy), a homeless man who lived on the streets in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, has died of burns he suffered in a terrible misadventure.  It’s almost impossible to retain perspective when reading an article like this. Like many homeless in the dwontown Toronto core, Massie had been seeking a few minutes warm respite from the cold inside a bank ATM lobby at King and Yonge. Like many, he had been drinking, obviously high proof alcohol of some sort – police say he had spilled alcohol on himself, lit a smoke outside the bank and went up in flames. He died hours later in hospital from the burns.

Bench or Bed?

Bench or Bed?

Many volunteers with Project417 have walked the streets of the financial district with me handing out meals and warm clothing, especially the Richmond – King – Yonge – University block frequented by so many homeless. Years ago, Massie probably would have been camped out at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, where upwards of a hundred used to camp on benches and in cardboard huts – but council and the new Mayor David Miller forced most of them off saying the presence of so many homeless was bad for tourism. Those of you who walk with me see where most have gone: two blocks down into the financial district, shivering and living out a hopeless existence up against the glass and steel towers of banks and wealthy corporations.

What will it take to make this city, this country, wake up and see the travesty that is homelessness? The Star reports Massie was banned from most shelters, and even several public parks due to what they called bothersome, anti-social behaviour. Banned then, even from emergency shelter – banned from Out of the Cold programs – banished to walk the streets and sleep on cement, taking refuge in alcohol, even cheap mouthwash – abandoned by the very agencies and programs that exist to help him.  Security guards and shelter workers, many with Dixon Hall, the agency hired by the city to police grassroots Out of the Cold programs in churches,  regularly ban our homeless friends from shelters due to aggressive, violent behavior.  Some church Out of the Cold programs have opted out of having Dixon Hall staff on site,  instead footing the bill themselves for private safety and security staff so they can have more control over decisions such as banning or turning away the homeless. It’s a difficult line to walk – knowing that it may be a life or death decision, as it was for John Massie.

The report refers to “city restrictions that prevent outreach agencies [from] distributing survival supplies…like sleeping bags, hot food and blankets” as a possible contributing factor to the tragic death of John Massie.  These City of Toronto restrictions do exist and they are almost criminal. There is no bylaw cited by the city in imposing the restriction. Several years ago, all outreach agencies that rely on City of Toronto funding to run their programs received correspondence from the city requiring them to cease handing out food, warm clothing, and outdoor gear or face review of their funding – financial coercion, almost hostage taking in effect. I know most of them complied – you used to be able to call the city’s  StreetHelp line and have a sleeping bag or blanket delivered to a homeless person without shelter on the street – no more, but they will offer to transport the person to a shelter at some point in the next few hours – the same shelters that ban them and turn them away. ( A police “drunk tank” would be better than Massie’s fate outside). I know of more than one organization that no longer delivers hot meals on the street because of pressure from city staff.  There is no bylaw being enforced by the city in this – although several right-wing councillors had suggested anyone handing out food to the homeless needed a food vendors licence like the hotdog carts – ludicrous! They base their cruel coercion on the ivory tower philosophy that servicing homeless on the streets only “enables” their street lifestyle and inhibits them from receiving the help they need – help the City of Toronto has bet will come only from their now long-running “Streets to Homes” programs – whose street outreach workers travel with security guards by their side.

Project417 Help the HomelessProject417’s street outreach receives no city or government funding. An independent Christian charity, we will continue to share the elements of our liturgy – in the form of nutritious sandwich bag lunches prepared in churches across the GTA by thousands of volunteers every year. We will continue to walk the streets and be in community with our abandoned homeless friends like John Massie. And we will continue to grieve for each and every homeless man and woman that dies a needless death cold, hungry and alone. Rest in peace John…

To find out how you can walk with me in solidarity to the memory of John Massie, visit project417.com::


New Hurricane Threats and Funding Shortfall Delay Project417 New Orleans Mission

Mold marks calendar in flooded Gettridge home Aug. 29th, the date Katrina hit.

Mold marks calendar in flooded Gettridge home Aug. 29th, the date Katrina hit.

An update for Andy’s Project417 mission partners – As you might know, in addition to our work with the homeless here in Toronto, Project417 has been providing Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief in New Orleans since 2005. Between the week following Katrina in September, 2005 and November 2006, Project417 Executive Director Joe Elkerton and Andy Coates have been in New Orleans several times, from short two week missions to an extended stay by Andy from April to October of 2006, serving in disaster relief programs and heading up home re-building / recovery teams.

Since that time, several appeals by Project417 for funding of another home renovation mission to re-build houses destroyed by the flooding have fallen on deaf ears. Most people assume that this long after Katrina the city is not in any immediate need of relief. To the contrary – hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed and many have not yet received any U.S. federal or state funding. Less than half the former residents are able to return.  In addition, of the hundreds of millions of dollars donated to some organizations, during Katrina, the majority of those funds left New Orleans when the immediate disaster was over, deposited in general funds until the next emergency, not to be used to help New Orleans as many donors intended.

Project417’s missions to New Orleans are of a small, grassroots nature and simply help local families rebuild their flood ravaged homes. More than 25 Toronto area volunteers have joined Andy and Joe on six separate occasions to help rebuild. One of those we helped, Mr. Herbert Gettridge of the Lower Ninth Ward of Orleans Parish, New Orleans, is the subject of an upcoming public televsion documentary on PBS Frontline, The Old Man and the Storm, by acclaimed producer June Cross (Watch it Jan. 6th, 2009 at 9PM, check local listings) telling the Gettridge family story of survival and recovery assited by volunteers from across North America, including Project417. Another we helped with a team from Heart Lake Baptist Church in Brampton, Mrs. Aline Dastague of Lakeview, is over 90 years old and was living in a retiremnt home while her home sat destroyed by the failure of the Canal Street Levee.

Andy was scheduled to go to New Orleans for the recent Labor Day weekend and take part in the August 29th Katrina Memorial events and visit Mr. Gettridge, to prepare for a planned November short-term mission to re-build more homes. But donations fell far short of the $1500 goal to fund the trip, although several long time supporters sent generous last-minute cheques. And then new hurricanes threatened New Orleans. Hurricane Gustav forced the evacuation of New Orleans and much of Louisiana, news covered here at the Missionlog, and threats from tropical storm Hanna, and Ike, and Josephine, so the trip has been delayed. Although Gustav was downgraded to category two and only glanced by New Orleans, the levees held and residents have received the return home notices, power is out for over a million people and there still was some serious flood damage from the hurricane borne torrential rains.

As soon as power is restored to the area and Project417 donations reach our modest goal, Andy will visit to assess the new damage, update recovery needs and finish preparatory planning for the November mission. Visit Project417 today to see how you can help or join the mission.

|| Visit Project417 Online ||

UPDATE – January 5, 2009 – Andy has returned from two disaster relief trips to Galveston County, Texas for Hurricane Ike in San Leon, Texas – helping families rebuild their huricane ravaged homes. Vist Project417 to volunteer for the next trip. Returning from the most recent Texas trip, Andy visited Mr. and Mrs. Gettridge in their New Orleans home and made plans with Mr. Gettridge to set up a trust fund to build two new homes on property in the Lower Ninth ward owned by the Gettridge family.

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