Toronto city council gave a $500,000 grant to Out of the Cold Shelters (OOTCS) on Nov. 22, which will help the organization provide food, shelter and clothing to Torontonians at its 16 interfaith sites across the city, including those operating out of Beth Sholom Synagogue, Beth Tzedec Congregation and Holy Blossom Temple.
Rafi Aaron, a spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness and co-chair of OOTCS at Beth Sholom and Beth Tzedec, announced the new funding at city hall.
This is only the second time that the organization has received government funding in its 30 years of existence.
Seventy-four per cent of the funding will be designated to new staffing, including two mental health support workers who will be available four hours a week at seven of the shelters, including Beth Sholom and Beth Tzedec.
The support workers are part of the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness and the Canadian Mental Health Association’s expanding pilot project. The mental health specialists will provide support for crisis prevention and intervention, make referrals to other services and offer resources to anyone in need.
Mental health services are one “of the many services that is chronically underfunded and under-provided,” said Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, Beth Sholom’s spiritual leader.
In 1988, OOTC was established as a response to the growing homeless population in Toronto. Yet its staffing model was never updated to account for the increasing numbers of homeless people. The organization has heavily relied on volunteers to make up for its lack of funding.
In 2017, OOTCS’ total occupancy reached 96 per cent, up from 90 per cent the previous year. In an end-of-season report, the organization announced that it would hit a breaking point in two years, if no solution was found.
When OOTCS started operating at Holy Blossom Temple over 20 years ago, organizers hoped it would be a short-term solution to the city’s homeless crisis, said Rabbi Michael Satz.
Over three decades later, the shelters are still in high demand.
For all parties at the press conference, this was a celebratory announcement, but it was also unanimously acknowledged that the influx of funding was an interim solution.
“This half-a-million dollars has a finiteness to it,” said Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. Once the money runs out, it is not necessarily going to be renewed, she added.
The funding was approved in July, after the city’s 2018 budget was allocated. There is no guarantee that it will be renewed in the 2019 budget. In Wong-Tam’s opinion, the funding should be solidified as part of the annual budget moving forward.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedec Congregation is also focused on sustainability. “Our goal is that the new (2019) budget of funding will both allow for more beds and more advanced planning in connection to the community mental health system,” he said.
Steve Lurie, the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Toronto branch, also emphasized the importance of establishing a long-term plan to approach supportive housing and reduce its waitlist.
Last year, the city set a 10-year goal of providing 18,000 supportive housing units. “It is somewhat ironic that today there are now 18,000 people on the supportive housing waitlist,” Lurie said. “So we really have to deal with the root cause of the issue and that is we need a plan to combat homelessness.”
To conclude the press conference, Beth Tzedec and Beth Shalom donated 100 meals to OOTC, in recognition of Coun. Joe Mihevc’s commitment to the organization since its inception.