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Sunday, December 21, 2014

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Helping the down and out in downtown Toronto

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People walk past a panhandler on Bloor Street. Veteran social worker Simon Kalkstein of Jewish Family & Child helps Jewish clients from his nearby office in the Annex. [Cara Stern photo]

TORONTO — Simon Kalkstein, supervisor of the Gordon S. Wolfe branch of Jewish Family & Child, laughed when asked if his job is 9 to 5.

On the day of his interview with The CJN at the downtown branch, located on Madison Avenue in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, he was scheduled to help a client with a hoarding problem hire a cleaner for his apartment before an inspection by community housing.

“He’s a bright guy who doesn’t take care of himself,” Kalkstein said.

He also had a visit planned with a woman who is bipolar and likes to come in and talk, as well as a consultation with a family whose disabled son is looking for a job. “I hope to get him into a sheltered workshop.

“That’s what I know about so far. I never know what will come up,” said Kalkstein, 65, a social worker who has been with the agency for almost 38 years.

He started with JF&CS on Beverley Street downtown, moved to the Lipa Green Building on Bathurst Street north of Sheppard Avenue, and in 1988 became supervisor at the downtown branch, then located at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

“I was hired originally as an intake worker because I spoke fluent Yiddish,” said Kalkstein, who was born in Germany after World War II to Holocaust survivors.

“The downtown Jewish population was about 8,000 when I moved down. Now it’s somewhere around 20,000, and the demographics have changed. There is the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School and a thriving supplementary Hebrew school. There are a lot of young, middle-class families.”

The clientele at his branch, however, is to a large extent made up of single parent families, alcoholics, drug addicts, as well as people who are disabled.

“We see the marginal population. As a United Way agency, anyone can come see us, but to receive assistance from UJA Federation [of Greater Toronto], they must be Jewish. The downtown branch carries almost 50 per cent of the agency’s financial assistance.”

Interrupting the meeting for a few minutes to talk to a man who needed money, Kalkstein said, “We see a little more of the underside of the world than most people. There are a lot of tzuris out there. We’re reaching out in some way, but we’re not solving big issues. Homelessness, mental health issues and poverty are still out there, but we’re getting involved in people’s lives and doing what we can.”

When visiting one woman, Kalkstein said he often runs out to buy her food supplies. “Social workers don’t typically shop for clients, but she can’t get out. What does it hurt to help her out?”

He said that thanks to federation, he is able to give people money to help ward off situational homelessness.

An elderly man called him recently, he said, and told him his wife was being discharged from the hospital and needed help at home.

“If he hires help, though, he won’t have money for rent, Kalkstein said.

“Years ago, he and his wife were in a shelter, and he asked me in Yiddish if they would have to move back. I had them get a letter from the landlord saying they couldn’t pay their rent, and we got him some funds. Meanwhile, we arranged for his wife to get government money for subsequent months.”

He said that too often, people have to make choices. “They can pay their rent, but not their hydro, they can eat but not pay their rent. We help cover them so they can carry on. We rescue them so they don’t get in trouble.”

There is often a pattern behind those who find themselves homeless, he said.

“I see a bright young man who had no education. He probably didn’t finish Grade 8. He grew up with poverty and drugs in his life, and never really had a chance. He comes here and leaves some of his stuff with us, because he trusts me. He even has his mail forwarded here. We’re a place of safety to him.”

Toronto has a fairly affluent Jewish community, Kalkstein said, and federation has committed to help the poor. A recent $1-million donation to the agency, from Shirley Granovsky, will be designated toward helping break the cycle of poverty.

He said if he were a young social worker, “I would do this all over again. It’s gratifying for me to be involved in acts of loving kindness. We are our brothers’ keepers, and we have a sense of responsibility to them.”

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