Toronto

Charity prepares 3,000 winter survival kits for unhoused people in Greater Toronto Area

A Toronto charity has put together 3,000 winter survival kits to help unhoused people endure the cold winter months this year.

Kits being distributed to agencies that will hand them out to people experiencing homelessness

Jody Steinhauer, founder of Engage and Change, says the charity has put together 3,000 winter survival kits that are being distributed to community agencies that will hand the red backpacks out to unhoused people in the GTA. (CBC)

A Toronto charity has put together 3,000 winter survival kits to help unhoused people endure the cold winter months this year.

Engage and Change, a grassroots organization committed to alleviating poverty, began on Saturday to distribute the kits to more than 200 community agencies, emergency shelters and outreach relief groups that in turn will give the kits to unhoused people across the Greater Toronto Area.

The effort, now in its 23rd year, is called Project Winter Survival.

Jody Steinhauer, founder of Engage and Change, said each kit in a red backpack contains a sleeping bag with a carry strap, a toque, a scarf, gloves, warm socks, paper and pen and a puzzle book, as well as toiletries, including lip balm, lotion, shampoo and a toothbrush. Each kit also has personal protective equipment, including hand wipes, hand sanitizer and 10 masks.

"Every year, I say this, we don't want to be doing this," Steinhauer told reporters at a virtual news conference. "The solution is long-term housing and supportive services. And we do not want to be packing kits next year. But we will be here as long as there is a problem."

Steinhauer, also president of The Bargains Group, a discount wholesaler, said many of the items in the kits are donated. This year, the charity was asked to put together more than 18,000 kits to help unhoused people because there is so much need given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Later in an interview, Steinhauer added: "This is a rich city. This is a rich country. We need housing solutions now."

Staff Sgt. John Stockfish, of Toronto Police Services' 13 Division, told reporters that the police are "very humbled and very honoured" to help out with Project Winter Survival. Stockfish said police officers on the street are aware there is a great need for basic necessities of life among unhoused people in Toronto.

"We see the demand," he said. "The harsh elements make it that much more challenging for people that don't have homes and that are suffering. We just want to be able to have an opportunity to help and to contribute in any way, shape or form."

Police have helped with assembly and distribution of the kits for years, he added.

Tracy Murdoch, housing and homelessness manager at WoodGreen Community Services, says: 'I haven't seen the homelessness rate where it is now since the 1980s.' (CBC)

'People have no money,' agency manager says

Tracy Murdoch, housing and homelessness manager at WoodGreen Community Services, said the agency helps thousands of unhoused people every year and hands out about 200 winter kits annually.

"I haven't seen the homelessness rate where it is now since the 1980s," Murdoch said in tears. "People are overdosing. People are dying. We need supportive housing. We need to build housing. We need affordable housing."

Murdoch said she is now seeing members of the middle class become homeless.

"People have no money. People cannot afford rent," she said. 

Since it began in 1999, Project Winter Survival has given more 43,000 survival kits to unhoused people in Toronto and the surrounding area.

The kits are being distributed as a total of 50 homeless shelters are grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks. As of Friday morning, there were 401 active cases among unhoused people at shelters and one resident at Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men, had died.

On Saturday, Toronto faced extremely cold temperatures and remained under a special weather statement because of heavy snow is expected on Sunday night into Monday.

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