What should I do if I see someone “sleeping rough” this winter?

More than 5,000 people spend their nights in shelters, or out in the open, in the city of Toronto. That’s the official number, but the actual number is probably a lot higher, says Sanda Kazazic, drop-in coordinator for St. Stephen’s Community House, a multi-service United Way agency that offers employment and housing supports, among other resources, to local residents. And when you spot someone sleeping outside in the cold, it’s natural to want to help. But what should you do? Here are three suggestions:

Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. If you see someone on the street who looks as though they’d be comfortable being approached, offer to buy them a hot cup of tea, coffee or cocoa. “Not everyone will accept something directly from a stranger on the street,” says Kazazic. “But often if you ask them what they need, whether it’s a hot drink or a sandwich, they will tell you.” She says to start with a simple “hi” and take it from there.

2. Always look people in the eye and acknowledge them. “You don’t know the circumstances that brought them to the street,” says Kazazic. “And they’re no different from anyone else you might meet on the sidewalk.” Sometimes, just a smile goes a long way. On really cold nights, you can ask if they know where to go to get warm, and direct them to the nearest shelter or Out of the Cold drop-in program. This is especially helpful for newcomers, who may not know what resources are available in the city, says Kazazic.

3. Volunteer your time or make a donation. During the winter, shelters often operate at capacity and are desperate for help. Let the experience of meeting someone on the street inspire you to do more. “Contact an agency or drop-in program to find out how you can get involved,” says Kazazic. “It’s a great way to put a human face to a pressing social problem and to bridge a big gap in our community.” If time is an issue, donate toiletries or cold-weather gear—sleeping bags, gloves, hats and warm socks are almost always in demand, although it’s best to call your local shelter to see what they need most.

If you see someone on the streets who looks like they could use some help, call 311 to reach Toronto’s non-emergency line for access to the city’s outreach services or contact Streets to Homes, a 24-hour, city-run program that offers street respite. If the person is unresponsive or seems to be in an emergency, never hesitate to call 911. For additional information, call 211 or visit the website to find community supports in your neighbourhood.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 7 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

300x300-ww-warm-wear-package

Want to make a difference for someone experiencing homelessness or poverty? Give the gift of winter warmth by clicking on the image.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.

Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

YorkStreet

To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

Looking for a unique way to give back this holiday season? United Way’s Warmest Wishes ensures necessities like clothing and food are there for people experiencing poverty at a time when they need it most. Visit Warmest Wishes to make your gift today.

What is “hidden” homelessness?

StephenGaetz_HeadshotCropped

Stephen Gaetz
Director, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night.

But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, made up of nine mostly suburban municipalities, homelessness is a growing issue with its own set of complex challenges. One in 8 people also live in poverty.

Imagine a City spoke with Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, co-author of a report with United Way about youth homelessness in York Region and York University professor about what we can do about it.

1. Homelessness is often hidden: “There’s often public perception that homelessness is a downtown issue, but it’s not,” says Gaetz. “There’s poverty in the suburbs, but it’s often hidden.” A lack of affordable housing is a serious community issue in York Region—housing prices have soared in the past decade and the rental market is dismal. With the wait list for rental housing higher than the number of units, individuals and families experiencing poverty have no choice but to stay in inadequate housing. For example, some “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet.Suburbs

2. Homelessness is spread out: When we think of Toronto, the city’s busy urban core often comes to mind. But in York Region, where its nine municipalities don’t have a downtown centre, services and supports are situated few and far between, making them difficult to identify and access. As a result, mobility is a major issue and homelessness is dispersed. “The transit infrastructure in York is largely built to accommodate privately-owned vehicles making it tough for homeless individuals to move throughout the region and access services,” says Gaetz. “People often have to leave their communities to access help. In turn, they lose their natural supports—including family, friends and neighbours—all key factors that can help someone move forward and avoid homelessness.”

YorkStreet

To better understand this issue in York Region, United Way led the region’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count on Jan. 20 and 21. “Determining the extent, demographics, and needs of those experiencing absolute homelessness—in shelters and on the streets—at a single point in time is key to reducing it,” says Michelynn Laflèche, Director of Research, Public Policy & Evaluation at United Way Toronto & York Region. “This information will help us inform strategies to champion change in the region.”

3. Community supports are sparse: Unprecedented population growth in York Region and higher proportions of newcomers and seniors have led to service gaps that make it hard for individuals to access crucial support. Gaetz says in Toronto, for example, there are roughly 4,000 shelter beds for the city’s 2.6 million residents. However, in York, there are only 130 beds for a population of 1 million. “Emergency supports are good quality in York Region, but there are not a lot of them,” says Gaetz.

LeavingHomeReportFor example, Blue Door Shelters, supported by United Way, operates the only family shelter in York Region providing food, counselling and a safe and supportive refuge for homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless. Adds Gaetz: “If community services aren’t visible in your neighbourhood, you might assume they’re not there. This causes people to either uproot and go to Toronto for support, or not access crucial services at all.” But Gaetz says an increase in more than just emergency supports is needed in the region. “We need to prevent people from becoming homeless, while also supporting others to move out of homelessness,” he says. “Shifting our way of thinking from emergency response to prevention and transition can have a big impact.”

StephenGaetzQuote

What does homelessness look like where you live?  Visit ProjectUnited, for eye-opening videos, audio and written stories of people experiencing poverty right here at home. Conceived and created by two engaged Ryerson University students, ProjectUnited is a volunteer-driven partnership with United Way that aims to raise awareness of the barriers people face in our community.

ProjectUnited_Logo

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts in 2015

Each and every day, we’re touched by remarkable stories of personal transformation and possibility in the places where we live, work and raise our families.

Although it was tough to narrow down our choices, here are the top 5 stories that touched our hearts in 2015.

1. Support for Syria: Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian made big headlines this past November when the Toronto couple announced they were cancelling their upcoming wedding party to host a smaller fundraiser with all the proceeds going to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of four. “We felt we had an obligation, in light of the humanitarian crisis, to contribute, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that,” Farzin told the Toronto Star. Their story went viral and inspired hundreds of people to donate to this worthy cause that has raised $51,500 to date. This incredible young duo tied the knot in a smaller ceremony at City Hall last October. We wish them well on their journey ahead!

2. From homeless to Harvard: Tonika Morgan reminds us of all that is possible with lots of passion and hard work. After dropping out of high school at 17 and spending her teenage years in and out of homeless shelters, the now 32-year-old decided to turn her life around. Determined to attend university, Tonika managed to cobble together several part-time jobs—including a support worker at a United Way agency—to help put herself through school. After graduating from Ryerson’s diversity and equity studies program in 2008, she set her sights even higher: Harvard. “I applied and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think I would get in on the first try,” Tonika told CBC News. She was shocked when an acceptance letter from the Ivy League institution arrived in the mail last spring and turned to the Internet to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help make her dream a reality. Hundreds of people were inspired by her story and came together to help her cover 100% of the $71,000 USD price tag. This past fall, Tonika headed south of the border with an entire country cheering her on!

3. The gift of life: We couldn’t help but be inspired by the remarkable story of “miracle twins” Phuoc and Binh Wagner who were adopted from Vietnam by a Kingston, Ont., couple in 2012. Both girls desperately needed liver transplants—but the twins’ father, Michael, could only donate part of his liver to help save one of his daughters. The Wagner family turned to social media to appeal for additional organ donors and their story sparked international media attention. But what happened next was truly remarkable—demonstrating the power of a compassionate community to help strangers in need. Nearly 600 potential organ donors from across North America contacted Binh’s doctor in Toronto offering to help save her life—and the lives of countless other recipients on Ontario’s organ wait list. The four-year-old is now happy and healthy after receiving a transplant from an anonymous donor last April and joined her sister this fall for their first day of kindergarten. This holiday season, the Wagner clan plan to celebrate the best gift of all—each other!

COURTESY OF MELISSA CAMUS

4. A birthday to remember: Odin Camus had a birthday he’ll never forget earlier this year. The 13-year-old Peterborough, Ont., resident has Aspberger’s syndrome and sometimes struggled to make friends. After none of his classmates RSVP’d to his birthday party, Odin’s awesome mom Melissa turned to social media for help. The response from the online community was absolutely incredible. More than 20,000 people—including athletes, actors and politicians—took to Twitter to wish Odin a Happy Birthday. Hundreds of friends, family and even complete strangers also rallied together to throw Odin a party at a local bowling alley bringing cards, gifts and well wishes to celebrate the special occasion. We love Odin’s story because it demonstrates what a community is capable of when it rallies together for a common cause. It’s also a wonderful reminder of how a simple act of kindness can have a transformational effect on someone’s life.

5. A future that works: Angel Reyes spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. The best part?  Angel is using his hopeful story to shine a spotlight on the issue of precarious employment and to help spark a larger conversation about the need for labour reform in the province. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

And you’ve probably heard about Walter, but if not, here’s a story we just couldn’t leave off our list!

Walter

6. A story for the ages: Walter Decker inspired hundreds of people last month when he became the oldest person ever to climb the CN Tower for United Way. When the 91-year-old retired, he made a commitment to stay healthy and active. The Hamilton, Ont., resident walks, completes 60 pushups every day and climbs the Hamilton escarpment at least twice-a-week. Impressive, right? But when Walter conquered Toronto’s most-famous vertical landmark in just over 45 minutes on November 8, 2015, he also stepped up on behalf of thousands of people and families across Toronto and York Region. “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping people that need United Way’s support,” he says. Way to go, Walter!

Want to get inspiring stories delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work you make possible.