Ministries struggle to meet spike in demand for shelter, food as unhoused people risk death on the streets
“Everybody lost a lot of friends out here,” says an Indigenous elder who gives his name simply as Dave.
He’s sitting on a bench outside Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, where he has both relied on the church’s services for unhoused and street-involved people over the past two years and taken a leading role in helping provide them.
He and Eddy, another volunteer from the community, say the pandemic and its knock-on effects have added new layers of difficulty and danger for street-involved people. Dave says he has lost friends in the past two years—not just to COVID, but also to opioid drugs.
“We went through a lot of those narco kits,” he says, referring to the naloxone kits he uses to rescue people dying from opioid overdoses. “I hate carrying those, because every time I end up using them.”
Data from the City of Toronto back up what Dave describes: more homeless people have been dying each year in Toronto since the pandemic began. Advocates for the unhoused say it’s difficult to get reliable statistics, but official numbers record the deaths of 128 people in 2019, 144 in 2020, 221 in 2021 and 92 as of June 2022. The proportion of those who died of drug toxicity as opposed to other causes rose from 30 per cent in 2019 to 53 per cent in 2020 and 60 per cent in 2021.
According to Zachary Grant, community director at Holy Trinity, this rise is a result of increased stress during the pandemic pushing vulnerable people toward drugs, combined with increasing isolation as shelters where staff might otherwise be able to intervene have become less accessible.
Every month, Holy Trinity holds a service, in front of the homeless memorial the church erected in Trinity Square in 2017, for unhoused people who have died. A list on the church’s website showed the names of 63 people commemorated as of July 2022, many of them listed as Jane or John Does.
Housing crisis worsened by pandemic, inflation
Nor is it just Toronto where people on the margins are facing more trouble finding housing and greater danger on the streets. Vicki Potter is co-chair of the diocese of New Westminster’s task force on homelessness and housing affordability and has worked on low-income housing in Vancouver’s public and non-profit sectors for much of her life.
“I’m in my mid-60s, and I’ve certainly never seen anything this bad,” she says, describing the homelessness crisis in Vancouver. “Inflation and the pandemic added to what was already a horrible problem.” Even before the pandemic, communities across Canada and the U.S. had been struggling with elevated rates of homelessness due to a lack of proper services for addictions and mental illness, she says.
For churches that minister to people on the street, it’s all meant a rise in demand for their services and a need for creative solutions.
The growing visibility of these problems during the pandemic prompted last May’s synod of New Westminster to commission the task force, she says. As this story was being prepared, the task force had just completed a set of interviews with members of marginalized communities and churches with housing and homelessness ministries and was analyzing the results. A report, she says, will be released early in 2023.
“Our hope is that every parish will see some opportunity to ramp up their programs or start a program—start thinking about homelessness and housing affordability as part of their worship or their study,” she says. “We need to have a specific response to this and have ourselves visibly and tangibly doing something to contribute.”
Holy Trinity is one church that has already ramped up its programming, led in part by Grant. Grant, who uses they/them pronouns, says what Potter describes is similar to what they’ve seen in Toronto.
“Certainly, the pandemic has visible-ized things that we as a society didn’t want to look at. But there’s a bigger-picture issue of why things have come to such a dire state in cities like Toronto, Calgary, Montreal,” they say.
That issue, Grant says, is the increasing privatization of urban space. As rising prices make housing harder to find and afford and condominium developments turn walkways and parks into security-patrolled private property, those without housing are finding it harder to find places they can be at any time day or night without being kicked out or told to move along.
“We’ve … priced the middle class out of housing and made a poor class of people— it’s almost like an exclusion zone where they don’t even have the right to exist,” says Grant. This pattern, combined with increasingly strained mental health and shelter services, creates a situation where people have nowhere to go.
‘The need is ubiquitous’
Across the country, churches that provide housing and food services to street-involved people have reported increases in the demand for their services over the past two years. At St. George’s Anglican Church in Moncton, N.B., a drop-in program for homeless people was reported by the CBC to have gone from 15 regular visitors to 90 over the course of the past year. In numerous communities throughout the diocese of New Westminster, which spans British Columbia’s lower mainland, the pandemic and its economic fallout have spread housing affordability woes even outside big cities like Vancouver, Potter says.
Likewise, when the pandemic shuttered drop-in centres, respite services and shelters across Toronto, says Grant, what had been an untenable situation became an all-out crisis. More people than ever were out on the streets at any given time, having gotten turfed out of one privately-owned space after another until they ended up in one of the few places that weren’t regularly patrolled. Holy Trinity’s site in Trinity Square, a gap between Toronto’s central shopping mall, the Eaton Centre and the nearby office buildings, is one of these places.
“They just move people away from wherever they are until they end up finally in this space. And what we’ve done with houseless people is said ‘No, we’re going to be in resistance of this growing trend,’” says Grant. So when Trinity Square became the site of a sizeable encampment of tents in the winter of 2020, Holy Trinity encouraged the people living in them to stay until they could find accommodations elsewhere.
That decision has been unpopular among both business owners in the area and the City of Toronto, says Grant, resulting in several visits from parks staff and police and conflict with city hall. But Holy Trinity held firm.
“Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. That work often puts you in a place where you will face the same persecution that people on the street face on a daily basis,” they say.
Finding housing affordable enough to relocate people to has become harder than ever, says Potter. Emphasizing that what she’s able to say is not to be construed as a complete set of findings from the task force’s work, she discusses a few of her own observations from the interviews and data she has seen so far.
While the pandemic may not have created the housing crisis, which was already being fed by lack of care for addictions and mental health, it has expanded it to affect more people who were just on the edge of danger before.
“It’s not even just big cities anymore,” she says. “What we definitely are all seeing is an increase in housing vulnerability for a large percentage of the population.”
Especially at risk are elderly people, refugees and young families who are having trouble paying their rent as the cost of living rises. Many are one paycheque away from losing their housing, she says, and there are “more and more stories about just working people in communities who can’t afford to live in their community anymore, and so they’re living in tents or campers or they’re couch surfing.”
One way that churches have historically helped is by using buildings on their own property to provide affordable housing for vulnerable members of their communities. The diocese of Ottawa, for example, has had parishes running affordable housing for decades, says Canon Peter John Hobbs, director general of the diocese’s community ministries.
“The need is ubiquitous as far as I can tell,” he says.
And, he and other advocates say, it’s been continuing to rise.
The diocese’s parishes of Christ Church Bells Corners, St. Thomas the Apostle and Julian of Norwich have new affordable housing projects in various stages of completion. But the Christ Church Bells Corners project, currently under construction, has faced obstacles too, including shortages of materials and labour. “The economic situation is not one that’s favourable—for organizations that are providing affordable housing but more importantly for people who require affordable housing.”
Potter also says that for a parish to build affordable housing is a long process. It takes 10 to 15 years on average, she estimates, for a parish in the diocese of New Westminster to go from considering the idea to actually breaking ground on new housing.
Food ministry vital
Still, she says, housing isn’t the only way for churches to help. Food ministries are a lynchpin, both in the lives of people living on the street who need a hot meal and people struggling to make rent, who can benefit from saving some money on their grocery bill.
This has become the primary element of ministry at Holy Trinity. While the encampment was set up in Trinity Square, Grant and a team of volunteers set up a hot meal service called Unity Kitchen, serving up to 350 people a day at the peak of the pandemic. Besides food, Unity Kitchen also provides clothes, hygiene supplies and naloxone kits, among other aid. Now that shelters in Toronto have reopened, along with hotels the city has bought out to use as emergency housing, the encampment has dwindled down to a single tent. But Unity Kitchen still serves around 150 people every day, all funded by donations to the church and one-time grants they apply for.
“We really struggle every week to make sure we have enough resources to support the growing number of people who are ending up in these situations,” says Grant. And with the city talking about closing the hotels they’ve been using as temporary shelter, there’s a strong probability that encampments, shelter need and demand for food and supplies are about to spring back up.
Potter says the task force’s survey suggested the success of ministries like this depends partly on how well they network and cooperate with other nonprofits. But while they agree it’s important to coordinate with other nonprofits to identify needs and make the most of resources, Grant cautions that conglomerating programs too formally can undermine the advantage of their grassroots structure—especially when the push to consolidate comes from the government.
“There is a power that comes with grassroots community work. You’re serving the people, and the people have been points of advocacy for mental health, houselessness, substance use. But when [charities] are amalgamated into these larger bodies, or funding gets more restricted and competitive, people are less inclined to speak truth to power.” An independence from the agendas of government or private financiers is one advantage church-sponsored groups have over those that rely on ongoing funding from the government or private sector
Eddy and Dave do say they notice a difference between Holy Trinity and other services in downtown Toronto. Whether it’s because COVID-19 has stretched their resources too thin or the staff are burned out, they say there are some shelters in the city they avoid.
“You can go to some places and they just don’t care,” says Eddy. “It feels like they just want to give you a bag lunch and get you going.”
In a climate that can feel increasingly dehumanizing for people living on the streets, they both point to Holy Trinity’s ministry as an example of what it looks like to treat the unhoused with dignity.
“The staff’s good here,” says Dave. “Everybody’s got a smile around here.”