Helping the homeless through the winter cold

TORONTO – Some homeless projects warm hearts — this one warms bodies.

In a Caledonia Rd. warehouse Saturday, over 200 volunteers packed 3,000 blackduffel bags with donated goods — everything from toiletries to  sleeping bags — which will be distributed to 195 Toronto-area partner agencies next weekend.

“Anyone who serves the homeless,” explained Jody Steinhauer, the founder of Project Winter Survival. “These are only going to clients who are living on the streets. This is the band-aid and communication tool.”

This is the 15th year of the program, which has, since its inception, doled out 18,000 survival kits through social service agencies, homeless shelter and outreach providers. Steinhauer said the demand for the kits increased by 20% this year to 12,000 due to the extreme cold weather, with some days feeling like -40C.

“We actually got a principal from a school that said, ‘Can I get a few kits? There are a few homeless children living in a car,’” she said. “What do you say to that? We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness. The face of homelessness is not that stigma of the man with the bottle.”

The massive Dec. 22 ice storm that crippled Toronto for days, leaving 300,000 hydro customers without power for varying periods of time, also caused the death of a homeless man.

The 15th Annual Project Winter Survival event held by The Bargains Group packs 3,000 essential items into duffel bags for the homeless with the help of volunteers and Toronto Police on Jan. 18, 2014. Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

The man was a client of the Good Neighbours’ Club, a drop-in centre for homeless men over the age of 50. While Gary Hambley, 55, didn’t know the victim personally, he said having access to such a survival kit might have saved his life. Many homeless men refuse to go to a shelter even in frigid temperatures for fear of violence, he said.

“Part of it is about acceptance that it is cold out on the street — this is Canada,” Hambley said.

Patricia Anderson of the city’s Shelter, Housing and Support department couldn’t provide statistics of the number of deaths in 2013 and 2014 to date on homeless deaths due to cold weather over the weekend. However, she pointed out there have been 139 reported deaths of shelter residents since 2007 — 59 of which took place last year.

Dawson Simon, 10, has been volunteering at the program since he was three.

“My mom has been in the project for a long time,” he said. “I have talked to homeless people on the streets. I’ve given them water. You feel bad – like, if I were on the streets, it would be hard. So, I think, how can I help?”

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