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:
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.