What are "out of the cold" shelters and why do they exist?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 12, 2016
Tags: shelters
Categories: Ask the Hub

 This question came from Jo A. via our latest website survey: “I would like more information on out of the cold sheltering. How many are there, how are they funded, and how long do they stay open for? What gaps do they fill in the shelter system? Why do they exist? Why do some choose this type of sheltering instead of regular hostel settings?”

Out of the Cold (OOTC) shelters exist in many different forms throughout Canada, but are typically only available throughout the coldest months of the winter. They are funded either through municipal program funding, donations, or a combination. OOTC shelters, especially when backed by non-profit or faith-based organizations, are often volunteer run and operate with minimal resources.  

The aim of OOTC shelters is to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness who cannot stay elsewhere either because they can’t or would rather not. The reasons why someone wouldn’t want to be housed (either independently or in shelters) are varied and complicated, but might include:

  • They have difficulty with shelters that may have availability due to restrictions, overcrowding, the staff, other people there, etc.
  • They have had a bad experience in the housing or shelter
  • They don’t want to abandon pets or property not allowed into the housing or shelter
  • They are not welcome in the housing or shelter (for example, people who use drugs are not always welcome in certain shelters unless they can prove sobriety and/or abstinence)

The shelter system, especially in large urban areas, is notoriously over-capacity and getting a bed can be a challenge. The referral process is often complicated, relying on people to either return in a few hours or find a phone to be contacted – which isn’t always possible. Other times, people get referred to other shelters that are far away or sites of previous bad experiences. These issues can be worse in the harsh weather of winter, when those people who might normally stay elsewhere are forced to look for shelter beds and result in a drastic increase of an already-constant demand.

OOTC shelters are a crucial service in providing additional warmth and shelter space during cold months; and are especially helpful for vulnerable people who are very marginalized, have a long history of living in poverty and/or in homelessness, and who have mental health or substance use issues.

Blanket on a benchOOTC shelters and the existing systems

While many gains have been seen this year in the shelter system (such as the opening of Toronto’s first LGBTQ shelter, Sprott House), other areas have not seen the same growth. Scarborough, just outside of Toronto, lost its only youth shelter in October, and many OOTC programs have been reduced. One Halifax shelter cut its number of beds almost in half and switched to a referral-based system in December, while Toronto City Council has not included any funding for OOTC programs in early discussions of the new city budget. This has prompted a petition to city council, as well the planning of a march on City Hall by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

Toronto is a good city to explore OOTC shelters because rates of homelessness are high and the city boosted municipal funding for them after three people experiencing homelessness died last January in extreme cold. As a result, there are three 24-hour drop-in centres open between January 1 and February 29th. The importance of having two of these sites opened is huge, highlighted by Joe Cressy in his NOW article: “With an average of 290 individuals using both sites each night in the first seven days of January, a relatively mild winter, we can see that the program is needed.”

There are also other programs, like University Settlement, that operate on a reduced schedule (such as Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights). According to the city’s 2014 Cold Weather Plan, there are 16 sites throughout the city that normally operate one night per week between November and April. The effectiveness of such an approach varies: some people find navigating different sites and hours very confusing, and others say that being open one night a week simply isn't enough. In either scenario, these centres provide essential warmth, food and socialization for people who may not otherwise seek such services.

While it’s great that these centres are available, what happens when OOTC programs end? Women seeking shelter have two 24-hour drop-ins operate that operate year-round (Fred Victor and Sistering), but everyone else has to look to the already overburdened other shelters once winter is over. This can especially be a problem in rural and northern communities, where shelters are few or non-existent and may be a lack of connected, funded community resources. In the words of someone I met doing street outreach last week: “What do we do after February 29th?”

People need more long-term support

Shelters are an emergency service, offering beds when people really need them, but they are expensive to operate, unstable, and do not alleviate the structural issues that help cause homelessness in the first place. These become particularly evident as OOTC programs come to a close. Another reader, Linda Z. touched on this issue when she asked us: “Why is money being spent on so-called "temporary shelters" as opposed to something more stable and long term? Most of these "winter or weather" shelters will be closed come springtime, what happens then?”

It is possible that many people will return to having nowhere to stay. Others may get connected to housing and other support services during their stay at an OOTC shelter. It is important to recognize that people need more than temporary shelter to leave a state of homelessness. The writers of Hearing the Voices: Learnings from Kitchener-Waterloo Out of the Cold point out that: “Finding and maintaining housing stability is about more than finding and maintaining housing, it requires a combination of adequate housing, income, and support. From this study, people experiencing homelessness are struggling with each of these areas of housing stability.” Many participants they spoke to had not found housing that was good quality, within their price range, and/or had access to supports they need to stay housed. Emergency shelters, especially OOTC ones, are usually accessed as a last but necessary resort; and people may return to the same circumstances.

The unfortunate reality is that in tight housing markets where little is affordable, and as income gaps continue to widen, we are still in desperate need of emergency shelters. While it is crucial to develop more preventative approaches, we also need to improve the shelter systems to more effectively help people right now – a precarious balance in a time of reduced funding at almost every level. As argued in the 2014 State of the Homelessness in Canada report, this will require a massive financial and political commitment from all levels of government.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Daniel Lobo via Flickr

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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