'Being on the street is not easy': 3,000 survival kits distributed to city's homeless to provide winter relief
Kits are stuffed with sleeping bags, seasonal apparel, hygiene products, snacks
Four years ago, Maria was panhandling downtown Toronto on Yonge Street when she was approached by someone carrying a "survival kit."
What she didn't know at the time was that the kit — packed with a sleeping bag, hat and other winter essentials — would be the catalyst that would ultimately turn her life around.
"This kit, it actually provided me with the motivation to remind me of where I aspired to be and what I wanted to become," Maria said.
Since then, Maria has landed a job and a house, but said she doesn't want to give her last name because of the stigma surrounding homelessness.
"I was losing hope because day after day people are mistreating you and you're seeing the unkind side of people," she said. "Being on the street is not easy."
Although once deterred by people's assumptions of her, she said the kit gave her hope and made her realize that "there's still kind people out there."
People are dying ... we have to stop homelessness.- Jody Steinhauer
Organizers of the charity Engage and Change hope more stories like Maria's will come out of Project Winter Survival, a program aimed at helping homeless people endure the hardships of winter.
"What we're doing today, I don't want to be doing next year," said Jody Steinhauer, president of Engage and Change as well as Bargains Group, which supplies products to Canadian homeless shelters.
"We are committed to do this until there are no homeless people in the city. Help put us out of business."
Joined by volunteers, as well as families, Toronto police officers and 150 social service agencies in the Greater Toronto Area, Steinhauer saw to the packaging and delivery of 3,000 survival kits on Saturday.
Thank you to all community volunteers, Toronto Police Officers, and Auxiliary Officers for working together today to to pack 3,000 winter survival kits and load for distribution to homeless on the street by 150 social service agencies throughout the GTA <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ProjectWinterSurvival?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ProjectWinterSurvival</a> ^sm <a href="https://t.co/oj0qxiomJR">pic.twitter.com/oj0qxiomJR</a>—@TorontoPolice
Kits will 'keep you from freezing to death'
Each kit was stuffed to the brim with various necessities including a sleeping bag, hat, mitts, scarf, socks, hygiene products and nutritional snacks.
"If you had nothing, this is the kit that would provide you with everything you need to keep you from freezing to death," Steinhauer said.
Not only that, but the package also gives people hope, she says.
The majority of products, Steinhauer says, have been donated from suppliers of the Bargains Group.
9,200 homeless reported in GTA
Although grateful, she says it's still not enough.
"This year there [were] 18,000 kits requested and we built 3,000," she said. "There's a big discrepancy."
Steinhauer says 9,200 people are reported to be homeless in the GTA.
Engage and Change is still fundraising in the hopes of raising enough money to package and deliver additional kits to the city's homeless population this season.
"People are dying ... we have to stop homelessness," Steinhauer said. "The winter has just begun."
38,000 kits delivered since 1999
Toronto police say since its inception in 1999, the charity has placed more than 38,000 kits into the hands of homeless people in the city. Toronto officers have now been involved for over 11 years.
"This is part of efforts to arm frontline relief organizations with lifesaving resources to reach out to the homeless in extreme winter weather conditions," Toronto police said in a news release.
Meanwhile, the city continues to grapple with what some are calling a "homeless crisis," leading two city councillors to put a motion forward that increase funds needed to tackle homelessness and affordable housing.