Out of the Cold: Faith-based groups ready to open their doors to the homeless

The Out of the Cold program opened its doors for the first time this season Thursday evening. Faith-based groups provide a nutritious meal, a bed for the night, as well access to services like laundry facilities and legal clinics.

Initiative has more than 3,000 volunteers across the city

First Interfaith runs their Out of the Cold program at St. Matthew's United Church on St. Clair Avenue. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

As temperatures begin to drop, faith-based organizations across the GTA began opening their doors Thursday night to help the city's homeless this winter.

The Out of the Cold program, which first launched in 1987, provides a nutritious meal, a bed for the night, as well access to services like laundry facilities and legal clinics.

"The most important thing we give them is a feeling of welcome, friendship, and of dignity and self-worth," said Holy Blossom Temple senior manager Bob Charendoff.

Holy Blossom has been taking part for the past 23 years. Charendoff says it was the first synagogue to run an Out of the Cold program in Toronto.

"There was a little bit of pushback from the temple and the community around us," said Charendoff. "Here we are in 2018 and it is the single most important program that we run out of this temple"

Sixteen faith organizations, including churches and synagogues rotate nights throughout the week from November until the end of March annually to provide overnight accommodations to those in need.

Every Thursday, Holy Blossom Temple, First Interfaith at St. Matthews Church, and Chinese Gospel open their doors through the night.

Holy Blossom offers various programs to keep guests busy during their stay.

"We have nursing services, so if there is anything they want to get looked at, we have that," Charendoff said. "We have musical entertainment, we have social activities like Bingo and an art program."

David Reycraft, director of Housing Services with Dixon Hall, the organization that supports the faith-based groups through city funding, says the demand for the program is not restricted to extremely cold nights.

The city plans to buy and construct four of these tented structures. This one, similar to those planned to house members of Toronto's homeless population, has been used for 10 years as a gym facility for Toronto private school Bayview Glen. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

"The name doesn't really fit the reality any longer," he said. "Individuals access the program regardless of the temperature outside. It used to be busiest during the coldest months of the year, but now it's busy from the moment the doors open."

In a 2017 report by Dixon Hall, called "Out of the Cold - 30 Years Later - A Growing Crisis," data showed a significant increase in the number of people using the overnight services from 2016 to 2017.

However, Reycraft says since the city of Toronto opened respite centres last winter, there has been a decline.

"We did see, with the advent of respite services last year, a dip in our numbers," Reycraft says. "I believe our overall occupancy was 95 per cent last year. The previous year is was about 98 per cent."

Sixteen faith organizations run Out of the Cold programs on a rotating basis throughout the week. (Haweya Fadal, CBC)

Earlier this year, the city of Toronto committed to opening four new respite centres across the city.

While Charendoff says he doesn't know what demand this winter will be like, he's certain the program is necessary.

"It's absolutely crucial," he said.

"There are nights that I fear for the safety of guests if it wouldn't be for our temple and other Out of the Cold programs."