It began amid controversy, but the Out of the Cold program at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church has been running very successfully since 2007, feeding and sheltering homeless people who might otherwise be sleeping on the streets. With the support of numerous volunteers, and Dixon Hall, the long-running service agency, St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold program has grown from serving 12 people, to providing meals for almost 40 people, and overnight shelter and breakfast for 20.
Back in 2006 the 21 existing Out of the Cold program shelters had reached their capacity, and new sites were being sought. Dr. Michael Chambers, a Beach family physician and Chairman of the St. Aidan’s Outreach Committee, proposed that one be established at the church. Various residents in the area expressed their concerns over safety, especially where the hours of the program overlapped with the hours of the daycare that used church space. But in the end St. Aidan’s began serving dinners and providing shelters every Monday evening from November to March. Dr. Chambers is still the director of the program, and stops in Monday evenings to greet both the volunteers and the guests.
“We treat our guests here as if they’re guests in our own home,” Chambers told me. “ And we get such great support from community businesses, and local volunteers.” Chambers said that the St. Aidan’s program is smaller, quieter, safer and more manageable than some of the larger shelters in the city, and this is why it runs so smoothly. “And we have such a huge space here at St. Aidan’s.”
Dr. Chambers is certainly correct about the space at St. Aidan’s. Guests of the Out of the Cold program arrive at the church at 4 p.m. when they sign in for whichever part of the program they wish to use. Some sign up for the entire night, while others may just sign up for the dinner. They are welcomed into a large room where they are offered tea, coffee, soup, snacks, bread and butter, and various juices. There are two rows of tables where the guests sit and eat, chat with each other and the volunteers, and even play a game of cards. I was impressed with the size of this space, but this was nothing.
At 6 p.m. they are invited upstairs to the parish hall, a huge space, where they are served the evening’s hot meal. It is here that the volunteers have gathered to prepare the meal in the church’s kitchens, and lay it out on long buffet-style tables.
After dinner guests may take a shower, speak to a nurse, socialize with others, watch a video, and generally stay warm. When it’s time for lights out at 10, the guests make their way to yet another area – the expansive church gymnasium on the lower level where 20 sleeping mats are placed around the room, leaving plenty of space for privacy.
Beginning at 6:30 in the morning guests are treated to a light cold continental breakfast with coffee, tea, and juice, or they can wait until 7 when they are served a hot breakfast buffet which may include pancakes, bacon and eggs, and toast. By 8 a.m. they are ready to leave.
I spoke to James, one of the guests this particular evening who told me that he has been a regular at St. Aidan’s every Monday for the past three years.
It has been reported that many homeless prefer sleeping on the streets rather than going to crowded shelters where they can be subjected to violence and property theft from others using the shelter.
“I really like this program,” James said. “There is a real difference between having just 20 people compared to the 50 or 60 at other sites. It’s much more relaxed and comfortable…They also have an excellent Christmas dinner.”
George, another guest, said, “The staff and volunteers at St. Aidan’s are doing a first class job. My hat’s off to them. We get treated very well here. The showers and sleeping facilities are excellent.”
Margaret Betts is an original Team Leader, and wife of Dr. Chambers. She told me that she is absolutely amazed at the level of support the St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold program gets from local businesses.
“Wholesome Foods provides all the fruit and vegetables,” she said. “Cobbs Bakery provides various breads, Starbuck’s and Tim Hortons supply the coffee and tea, Roger’s gives us videos for the evening, the Beach Solar Laundry does all our laundry for the towels we use for our showers. Amuse Restaurant has done several dinners for us. It’s just amazing.”
Betts explained that the St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold program has four teams of 20 volunteers per team, with several more volunteers on an auxiliary list should they be required. Each team is responsible for one dinner per month.
The evening BMN photographer Phil Lameira and I were there it was a group of volunteers from the Royal Bank at Queen and Lee who were hosting the evening’s meal. And it was a dinner fit for a king, with chicken, ham, lasagna, beef stew, rice, potatoes, salads and several vegetables. Branch Manager Jenn Downe explained that the meals are made at the homes of the volunteers from the branch, and then brought to the church. She also said that at St. Aidan’s they go out of their way to make sure that there is at least one protein dish with the meal.
“It’s a real special experience to get the team together for this,” Downe said. “We bring something to the community.” This is the third year that the Royal Bank has participated in the St. Aidan’s program.
Susan Snow, the Cook Co-ordinator for the Toronto Out of the Cold program said that any leftover food is gathered up and distributed to the lunch programs at St. John’s Norway and St. Nicholas Churches.
Also on hand this evening as a first time volunteer was former Toronto Star columnist Cathy Dunphy. Dunphy explained that she was one of the first journalists in Toronto to cover the ‘homeless beat’, and that, as a resident of Silver Birch, she felt it was her duty to get involved with the program at St. Aidan’s, if only to be able to tell those neighbours who have long opposed it that there was nothing to fear.
“This story ripped apart the neighbourhood,” Dunphy said. “After seeing how well it operates, I have to say that I think it’s a win-win experience for everyone involved.” She was adamant, however, that as successful as the Out of the Cold programs are in feeding the homeless and providing shelter in the cold winter months, the real issue that still needs to be addressed is housing. “There’s plenty of food,” she said. “What we desperately need is housing.”
Housing may be another matter altogether, and one to be addressed at other levels of city government, but when it comes to dealing with the immediate problem of getting the homeless off the streets and into a warm shelter during the winter months, and providing them with a hot meal, the Out of the Cold Program at St. Aidan’s Church is meeting that need exceptionally. I should leave the last word to one of the guests.
“This is a fabulous program,” said Pat. “It’s really excellent that the neighbourhood comes together for this. The church is so very supportive.”