It was a bittersweet anniversary Saturday, as volunteers for the Project Winter Survival homeless relief effort packed emergency kits and sleeping bags to prevent further Toronto street deaths during a weekend cold snap.
“Today is the 20th annual Engage and Change Project Winter Survival and while some people said that’s incredible, it’s pathetic,” said Jody Steinhauer, the founder of Project Winter Survival. She blamed the city of Toronto for failing to prevent two recent exposure deaths — and a suspected third — of homeless people on its streets.
“We should not have to be building survival kits in the city of Toronto to keep people from freezing to death,” an impassioned Steinhauer told volunteers and journalists at the North York warehouse of the Bargains Group, the clothing wholesaler she heads.
She said Project Winter Survival has been besieged with requests for survival kits this year: homeless aid groups sought 21,000 kits, up 60 per cent from last year, while the number of homeless people on the street has jumped to 9,000 this year from 6,000 in 2018. It’s time for Toronto to make good on its many promises of homeless aid, Steinhauer said.
“I don’t want to be doing this. So, for all of you, we need to put the pressure on the city of Toronto: open up 1,000 shelter beds, get people into housing long-term with support solutions so that next year at this time, we can be indoors and being proud.”
(City officials have pledged to open three new 24-hour shelter sites for homeless Torontonians, but only one is currently operating: a 100-bed facility in Liberty Village, run by the St. Felix Centre. The other two are expected to open in March and April.)
Steinhauer was speaking after 100 volunteers, each of whom had helped raise funds and gather other donations for homeless relief, spent hours packing and boxing 3,000 black knapsacks and blue sleeping bags.
These life-saving gifts — to which several major banks, the Salvation Army, GoodLife Fitness, Nestlé Waters and other firms have contributed — will be swiftly distributed to 210 social service agencies, homeless shelters and outreach providers throughout the GTA. Toronto police officers also carry some of the kits with them in their patrol cars, to hand out to homeless people they find shivering on the streets.
Project Winter Survival traditionally packs its kits on the third Saturday in January, in an assembly-line effort marked by good humour, loud music and friendly competition to win a homemade “Stanley Cup” for the most efficient of two teams, one wearing orange tuques and the other blue ones. Each kit contains $175 worth of donated clothing, food and personal care items.
But the timing for this year’s event couldn’t be better: Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for southern Ontario, with temperatures expected to drop below -24 C by Sunday night.
Steinhauer told the Star she’s been contacted by representatives of homeless shelters who haven’t been able to keep up with demand from people needing relief from the cold.
“We have a woman here from Out of the Cold who just told me last night they had to turn five people away. They didn’t even have a mat for them.”
The mass packing effort was assisted by members of 13th Division of the Toronto Police Service, longtime supports of Project Winter Survival. Insp. Justin Vander Heyden told the crowd he was recently transferred to 13 Division and he’s “very deeply touched” to see what his colleagues have been involved with for the past 11 years. He admitted he wasn’t fully apprised of the need for such a large-scale homeless relief effort until he witnessed it with his own eyes.
“I’m also a local resident and I didn’t know that this was going on in my very own community. And I have to tell you, I’m a bit embarrassed by it,” Vander Heyden said.
“But I’m so overwhelmed with pride that people have all come out here to give up their day for this amazing cause. These kits will probably go out to homeless people in the city tonight, probably within blocks of where we’re standing right now. And my officers in 13th Division couuldn’t be more proud to be a part of this.”
Vander Heyden added that he brought his 11-year-old son with him to assist with the packing, because “I want him to see how we treat our vulnerable people in this city, and what it takes to actually get it done together as partners.”
Project Winter Survival has distributed more than 35,000 survival kits since Steinhauer founded her group in 1999, during a winter so brutal that then Toronto mayor Mel Lastman called in the Canadian army to help shovel snow.
The relief effort has not only saved lives, but also changed them, Steinhauer said, as she welcomed to the stage two former homeless people: Peter Armory, 56, and Barbara Berryman, 49, who today have both homes and jobs after getting through rough periods of their lives. Armory, whom Steinhauer employs at the Bargains Group, was there with his son Joshua, age 5.
“I am a survivor of homelessness,” said Berryman, who works as a photographer and is a budding novelist, as she thanked Steinhauer and Project Winter Survival.