A pair of strangers united to shelter nearly 20 of Toronto's homeless in hotels

Jennifer Evans and Mohammad Fakih didn't know each other before Saturday, but in just a couple of days they managed to team up to get nearly 20 homeless people out of the bitter cold and into the safety of hotel rooms around the city.

On one of the coldest nights of the year, Jennifer Evans and Mohamad Fakih felt compelled to act

Alarm bells were set off Saturday night when volunteers at the Moss Park supervised injection site reported that they were unable to find a shelter to send people to in order to stay warm overnight. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Jennifer Evans and Mohamad Fakih didn't know each other before Saturday, but in just a couple of days they managed to team up to get nearly 20 homeless people out of the bitter cold and into the safety of hotel rooms around the city.

Amid frigid temperatures and mounting worry for Toronto's homeless, Jennifer Evans, a concerned Toronto resident, took to Twitter with an offer to pay for a hotel room for anyone who needed it.

Before she knew it, Evans got an offer from Fakih, the owner of Paramount Fine Foods, a Middle Eastern food chain.

Fakih immigrated to Canada from Lebanon 18 years ago. At the time, he says, there were many people who helped him get on his feet.

"I was given hope when I came to this country as an immigrant," he said. "It's only time to reciprocate and pay it back."

'Where are we to send folks?'

It all started when Evans saw a tweet from the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society (OPS). The group, which runs a safe injection site out of a trailer in Moss Park, had put out an urgent tweet saying there were no beds left to offer.

Gillian Kolla is a volunteer with the Toronto OPS. She says many of the people they had helped that night had nowhere to go, so she was calling around trying to find shelters with room.

"I finally got through to central intake at 8:20, and I finally got through to the Better Living Centre, at 9:00, and again they both told me they were over capacity," Kolla said.
It was late Saturday night when Jennifer Evans saw a desperate tweet asking for help finding shelter for homeless people who had nowhere to go, with temperatures dipping below -20 C. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC News )

It turns out the information Kolla was getting was incorrect. The City of Toronto issued a statement Sunday saying that shelter occupancy was in fact at 95 per cent on Saturday night — a number comparable to average occupancy rates over the last few months.

The statement also said there were nearly 40 beds available at the newly opened respite site on the Exhibition grounds, called the Better Living Centre.

Miscommunication 'unfortunate'

Mark Aston, the executive director of Fred Victor, the charitable organization that runs the Better Living Centre's shelter, told CBC Toronto that Saturday night's miscommunication was "unfortunate."

He said that he thought there may have been confusion among staff at the newly set-up shelter when the calls came in. He also said that despite a capacity of 110, they are ready to welcome any and all people who arrived seeking warmth on Sunday night.
Gillian Kolla volunteers at the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society. (James Morrison/CBC News)

Unaware of this, volunteers at the Toronto OPS sent out the tweet as a last-ditch effort to get help. 

When she saw it, Evans says she felt compelled to help. 

"People could freeze out here in a very short period of time," she said.

So she replied, offering to pay for a hotel room. She also started making phone calls to see if anyone else she knew would be willing to lend a hand.

"I reached out to a friend of mine and said, 'Do you know anybody who can help?'"" Evans explained.

That friend put her in touch with Fakih, who said that as soon as he heard that people were out in the frigid temperatures he was on board. He also offered to pay for more rooms.

As of Monday night, the pair had placed 18 people in hotel rooms in less than 48 hours.

'Whatever is needed, we have to do'

"What a great way to start the year, helping someone out," Fakih said.
Mohamad Fakih is the owner of a restaurant chain called Paramount Fine Foods. He agreed to pay for all of the hotel rooms, and provide food as well. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

"We had a pregnant couple who were literally living on a heat grate outside of Scotia Plaza, who we've managed to get into a hotel room," Evans said.

Fakih has even agreed to continue paying for additional nights, despite the fact there is space available at some shelters in the city.

Evans says it turns out many of the people they have helped aren't willing to go to shelters.

"A lot of people do not trust the shelter system, and would rather stay on the streets because of everything ranging from violence to policies," she said.

According to Evans, the couple that is expecting a baby was among those not willing to go to a shelter.

"They have a lot of stuff. If they go into a shelter they're not going to be able to bring it with them," Evans said.

At this point they're not sure how long the people they've been able to shelter will stay in the hotel rooms, but Fakih says they will continue to evaluate everyday.

"Whatever is needed, we have to do and that's it," Fakih said.

With files from Derick Deonarain