Toronto

'Being on the street is not easy': 3,000 survival kits distributed to city's homeless to provide winter relief

Around 3,000 survival kits were packaged on Saturday and delivered to Toronto's homeless population to help combat the harsh winter weather.

Kits are stuffed with sleeping bags, seasonal apparel, hygiene products, snacks

Volunteers packed and delivered 'survival kits' on Saturday, which is part of the charity Engage and Change's Project Winter Survival, aimed at equipping the city's homeless with tools they need to get through cold months. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

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. 

Maria says the survival kit she received four years ago lead to her landing a job and a house. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)
 

"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. 

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. 

Each kit is packed with survival essentials, such as hygiene products, winter apparel and snacks. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)
 

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. 

Staff and volunteers delivered the kits amidst Saturday's snow storm. (Darek Zdzienicki/CBC)

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. 

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