Goodwill's decision to close 16 stores, 10 donation centres and two offices in southern Ontario is a blow both to staff and those who rely most on the non-profit organization.

"We were shocked to find out," said Shelley White, president of the United Way of Peel Region, which she said recently partnered with Goodwill to help distribute three tonnes of donated items to Syrian refugees.

Goodwill collects donated clothing and other items, and directs revenues to training programs for people with disabilities and other employment barriers.

But on Sunday, the organization announced it would temporarily close Toronto-area locations due to what chief executive officer Keiko Nakamura called a "cash-flow crisis." The closure affects 450 unionized employees. Many had no knowledge of the decision until they showed up to work to find stores with their doors locked, without explanation.

Fragile community sector

"I think my immediate reaction was how fragile and how vulnerable our community sector is," White said.

Mariel Marshall often shops at the Goodwill on St. Clair Avenue and knows many of the employees personally. 

"They employ a lot of people with disabilities who otherwise couldn't find work. So it's hard for a non-profit to make some mistakes that have such a widespread impact on people," Marshall said.

Boiken Shehu's family relied on Goodwill when his family first immigrated to Canada. He said he purchased goods there before he began donating to the organization.

"More recently, I've donated because I know what it's like. I've been in that position before where I've had to go in and purchase things for myself," Shehu said.

Future uncertain

The future of Goodwill and its employees, and whether they will receive a severance package aren't yet known.

The Canadian Airport Workers Union, which represents the Goodwill workers, is appealing to all government and community stakeholders to reopen the stores immediately.

Locations across Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Newmarket, Barrie, Orillia and Brockville will remain closed until management can meet with representatives of the union.

Meanwhile, the United Way is speaking with other charities that might be able to replace Goodwill in efforts to assist Syrian refugees.

One organization focusing heavily on refugees is the Furniture Bank, which collects furniture, televisions and appliances, and donates to shelters. The Salvation Army regularly accepts clothing, furniture, books and appliances, and has locations across the Greater Toronto Area. The Canadian Diabetes Association also collects clothing and household items.

"It's not normal that a human service organization or a not-for-profit organization closes with no notice and no kind of transition plan," White said. "This is highly unusual."

Goodwill's Ottawa outlet closed just before the end of 2015 after management said it had become unsustainable.