Winter is finally showing it's not skipping out on 2007 while I ride with Na-Me-Res outreach workers doing what they can for Toronto's marginalized.
At our first stop, at Yonge and St. Clair, Dave not a new case is being a handful. He's been in and out of trouble and on and off the booze. Right now he's on it.
Outreach worker Mark Bach
voices a feeling of uncertainty about the future of the service as a colleague urges Dave to go to a shelter for the night.
Agencies like Na-Me-Res are working under new guidelines handed down by the city under which they're "strongly encouraged," to borrow the words of shelter and housing head Iain De Jong
, not to hand out sleeping bags or blankets to homeless people on cold nights like this.
In De Jong's world, frigid wea ther is a "tool" to be used to drive those who typically don't use shelters out of the cold, where they'll presumably be referred to the services that will help them get off the street permanently.
"It's about working with individuals, identifying their needs," De Jong says. "Just handing out sleeping bags isn't going to solve the person's homelessness."
Toronto's Streets Into Homes project has made a difference. De Jong says 1,000 people have been housed under the program (some 87 per cent of all those taken in), but is coy about how long those who are in the program have to wait for housing. Dave is one who says he's been waiting for months. "I'm still standing out in front of McDonald's at Yonge and St. Clair," he says. "Talk is cheap."
None of the outreach workers I talk to want to say so publicly, but their fear is that the city will hold back funding if they bend the rules and hand out blankets or sleeping bags. Of all the social service agencies for the homeless re-applying for city funding this year, only Na-Me-Res has applied specifically for money to continue handing out survival supports like sleeping bags.
According to Crowe, before the new directive some 90 social service agencies had requested 4,800 survival kits consisting of hygiene products, sleeping bags and snacks.
Now Crowe fears that these supplies can't be paid for officially through existing funding.
"It's all part of a philosophy of not helping them survive," laments street nurse and Toronto Disaster Relief Committee member Cathy Crowe.
Under the revised guidelines, social service agencies have been given explicit geographical boundaries within which they must work, presumably to prevent overlap. But what about those homeless people with whom groups like Na-Me-Res have developed trust and who live outside the group's new catchment area? Will they accept help from strangers?
Outreach workers also wonder what they're supposed to do with those like Dave who more often than not won't go to shelters, and for whom fewer and fewer detox beds are available. The detox centre at 501 Queen West was shut down in 2006, and the future of 16 Ossington is in constant flux.
Between gusts of wind, Bach continues contemplating the changes as Dave eventually calms down and agrees to go to 110 Edward Street, the city's emergency shelter.
First we have to pick up his belongings at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church near Yonge and St. Clair, one of about a dozen churches running Out of the Cold programs, but only one night a week.
Darren Doxtator, manager of outreach services at Na-Me-Res, tries to be philosophical about the new policies mandated by City Hall.
He says they'll still hand out food and sleeping bags when they have them. On a tough night they'll deal with 60 cases.
At 6 pm we arrive at Yorkminster (the doors won't open until 7), where nine people have already lined up. Doxtator tells me the place can fill up quickly, leaving people waiting to get ferried somewhere else.
It's a similar story at 110 Edward, which I'm told is packed by 11 pm even though this should be a light night. Ontario Works cheques were delivered two days ago, and today was payday for recipients of Ontario Disability Support Program benefits.
The Edward Street shelter is a hub for the hardest hit, but it will be closing soon. The plan is to redevelop the site for affordable housing, but the city has yet to guarantee that it will replace the number of shelter spaces to be lost.
We drive along Richmond and stop behind the Sheraton Hotel, where two people are lying on steaming vents. The danger with vents is that they'll scorch those lying on top or soak their sleeping bags. Both people refuse services. Since it's -13¡ out, not -15¡, there's no cold alert. I look at the Sheraton, certain it's far from full.
"You're always going to run across people who won't go into housing. Everybody has their choice," explains Doxtator.
Our next few stops are to deliver food. Calls come in, and the van hands out juice and sandwiches at a slew of sites across the city. People chat with the team, unaware that at stops along the eastern route, this may be the last time they see each other.
Bach tells me the city's new guidelines have created grey areas when it comes to caring for street people.
When he worked at Council Fire, which has since closed its overnight emergency shelter because of city funding cuts, he made room even if it broke a city rule.
"When you're looking at a person standing there freezing, are you honestly going to tell them, "No, I can only take 60 people'?"