On Christmas morning, before the smell of St. Aidan’s 16-turkey community lunch could fill the hall, even before morning Mass had concluded, 25 homeless men and women had staked their claim to a mat on the floor of the church’s basement for Christmas night. St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold was full on Christmas night – as we are every Monday night through the winter.
Christmas day and evening at St. Aidan’s were, in some sense, lovely. By the time I arrived, early afternoon, an overnight guest was already laying out the mats. A couple were whiling away the afternoon playing cards under their blankets. Others read, chatted and discussed matters – Scientific American pulled from a backpack to drive home a point. A Canadian Geographic was produced from another so that my son and I could share in the wildlife photography. We put on a Christmas classic for entertainment – Die Hard – and had turkey leftovers for dinner.
But then, volunteers Jim and Marnie, my family and I headed home to Christmas trees, a floor strewn with wrapping paper and our own beds, leaving these men and women in the lower gym of St. Aidan’s. They were on mats, separated by only a few feet and, yet, very much on their own. Boxing Day they would search for a different shelter.
Christmas wasn’t so much different from the regular Monday night routine that has played out over 12 winters at St. Aidan’s and over 30 winters in other churches and synagogues across the city. Those who find respite with us are the lucky few. When one pans out from here, a bigger, uglier picture comes into focus. There is a desperate and growing need for shelter in this city as we inch closer to one hundred homeless deaths in a year.
Something’s got to give. The homeless men and women who carry a desperation with them through their days and into their sleep every night need more and different from us. We knew this when we convened our volunteers at the conclusion of last year’s program to re-think what we do at St. Aidan’s in the context of what we have, in our community and in our capacity, to offer. All agreed. Something’s got to change.
This month, the doors of Beach United opened up to the homeless. It is just a dozen additional beds, but the objective is big. We are putting in place a pilot program that, we hope, will change how Out of the Cold works. With support from Dixon Hall, we have invited a dozen of Out of the Cold’s most housing-ready users to stay over every Monday night until the end of April to do and learn those things necessary to become – and remain – housed.
The program is being jointly determined through conversations with our guests about their interests and their needs and as a result it will develop, adapt and change over time. But, we know that it will involve learning to cook. We know it’ll involve tax filing and banking. For some, medical support will be necessary. We know that it must involve focused housing support.
It is our hope that so long as it is necessary, Out of the Cold will be open to those who need shelter – places of respite from cold and loneliness. But, perhaps too, behind the doors of St. Aidan’s and Beach United, paths to homes for those without can be built. With thanks to the generosity of this community, and special thanks to the congregations of St. Aidan’s and Beach United, this has become the objective.
Matthew Kellway is Chair of St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold program and the former NDP MP for Beaches-East York.