Winter arrived early this year for the families, advocates and faith leaders who gathered in downtown Toronto on the afternoon of Aug. 27. More than 300 people stopped by the lawn outside St. James Cathedral for Summer Chill, an event of winter-themed activities that drew attention to the dire need for respite spaces for unhoused people, particularly during the upcoming winter.
Kids and adults alike enjoyed a “snow cannon” (shooting out environmentally friendly foam), cookie decorating, free ice cream, button making, face painting and games, all to a soundtrack of favourite Christmas carols provided by live musicians. A passport game encouraged participants to get a stamp from each station while answering questions about respites and warming centres in Toronto. Santa Claus could also be spotted wandering around the party, obviously on vacation in a festive tropical shirt.
The idea for Summer Chill came about when the Rev. Angie Hocking was considering new ways of engaging people with the issues around housing in Toronto. Ms. Hocking is the community minister at Regent Park Community Ministry, a United Church ministry. She’s also an Anglican vocational deacon working with All Saints, Sherbourne, St. Peter and St. Simon the Apostle, and St. Bartholomew.
“Many of us very much value and know the importance of protests and rallies. They’re really important. But if you’ve been engaged with that for a while, you start to see there are usually the same types of folks that show up, and they tend to be quite informed of the issues already,” she says.
As a mother of a school-aged child and a member of parent and school groups in her own neighbourhood, she noticed that while people in her networks care about housing issues, there’s not much opportunity for them to get involved. “If there’s a protest at two o’clock on a Tuesday down at city hall, even just the logistics are often really hard for people to make, and it’s not necessarily going to be fun for a kid,” she says. “The idea came from a place of creating a space of advocacy and support for a very important issue that is family friendly, that is not going to be intimidating for families to come and have fun and also learn.”
The event was organized and supported by many churches and faith groups, including Anglican, United and Lutheran parishes, a Pentecostal church and a Hindu temple. “There were some that are not usually invited to those conversations or know how to navigate getting into those conversations, so I found even that was really exciting, to be at a table with new people represented,” says Ms. Hocking.
The issue that united these faith groups is the lack of respites – year-round, low-barrier drop-in spaces that are consistent in location and in all weather – for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Last winter, the city had only four warming centres open intermittently, which regularly reached capacity within an hour or two of opening.
“They were extremely sporadic. They would only open at very cold temperatures, they would open for a couple days and then close, they moved a couple times – so, very unpredictable,” says Ms. Hocking. “It was very inaccessible for most people.”
Together, the four warming centres had a capacity of 134 people; meanwhile, city data from this summer showed that 273 people were being turned away from shelters every night, even before the winter weather arrived. The city has also been closing its shelter-hotels, temporary shelters that were opened during the pandemic. Meanwhile, more than 10,800 people experience homelessness every night in Toronto, a number that is steadily rising.
“I’m very, very concerned about the winter,” says Ms. Hocking. “We keep pushing people away and moving people and re-traumatizing people.”
Attendees at Summer Chill had the opportunity to sign a petition calling on the city to open safe, reliable respite spaces available year-round, 24/7. The petition also urges the city to prioritize the creation of affordable rental housing, including rent-geared-to-income units.
Ms. Hocking and her colleagues spent time talking one-on-one with people about these issues. “People are very receptive. There was very, very little pushback. A lot of people were saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know about this,’” she says.
Olivia Chow, the mayor of Toronto, and Kristyn Wong-Tam, the MPP for Toronto Centre, both stopped by St. James Park and spent time speaking with people. “I do believe that they care deeply about these issues, but I think politicians really are paying attention to faith groups, so we need to figure out what it looks like to engage with our communities and really push for things well,” says Ms. Hocking.
That ground-level advocacy is one area where she says churches have a lot to offer, particularly within their neighbourhoods. With a rise in NIMBY-ism – the “not in my backyard” attitude that says services like respites and affordable housing should be built, but somewhere else – she says Anglicans can model what compassion and acceptance look like.
“I don’t think faith groups have to have all the answers about the issues – it’s just about saying, actually I’m ok with something opening up in my neighbourhood. What does it look like for us to support our neighbourhood and make sure it is safe for everybody, and it is welcoming?”
She encourages parishes to consider what kind of events could help start conversations with their own neighbours, whether it’s a town hall, a Q&A, a local charity project or a family-oriented event like Summer Chill. “We should be embedded in our neighbourhoods, and we should know who are the subset of folks that are more resistant. How can we open up conversations with our neighbours? How can we hear them out?” she says.
As the role of churches in Canada continues to shift, she sees opportunities for parish communities to engage with local justice issues in new and creative ways. “As the Church is growing and changing and shrinking, let’s remember that the work of justice is God’s work,” she says. “If we just keep aligning ourselves to that, I think that it doesn’t really matter what kind of buildings we have or don’t have. We will be part of transformation.”