It’s January 11 and it's not so cold today. In fact, we were able to go outside the Better Living Respite Shelter in the Exhibition Grounds to take a photo of Vanessa, Mark and their little dog, Charlie. Vanessa says, “I’ve never been to a shelter before but three days before Christmas we were evicted.” She is very happy today because she and her husband are transferring to Fred Victor Bethlehem United Shelter on Caledonia Road. She talks about how fortunate she feels to live in Canada where people who are homeless are not ignored.
There were 130 people staying at the Better Living Respite Shelter last night. The shelter is funded by the City of Toronto and Fred Victor is managing staff and operations.
Fred Victor Director of Shelters Sylvia Braithwaite describes in detail how the shelter was set up a few weeks ago when the polar vortex descended on Toronto. “We were expecting a slow start up, maybe 20 people, but 20 people lasted one night, and then (she slaps her hands together) the numbers went up fast." People don't survive in this kind of cold, and certainly not in this kind of day after day cold. With other emergency shelters full to capacity, the need for overflow respite shelters was a no-brainer.
“The stress was not so much setting it up," says Sylvia. "We know how to do it. We are used to making shelters work and putting systems in place. The thing that was stressful was when the people began walking through the doors and their need. People had no boots, one man came in wearing flip flops. People needed coats and hats. It was hard not to cry. We have had some amazing donations, but we still need men’s boots and coats.”
Today, there’s a steady stream of people coming to the work area set up for staff. They come by with needs and queries … a bottle of water or juice, socks, TTC tokens, where can they pick up a message or make a phone call…
Sylvia continues, “It’s a low barrier shelter. We take people with pets, couples, men and women. The Exhibition had the wire mesh walls so we thought why not use them. They divide up the space so we roughly have a men’s section, women’s section, couples and then people with pets. There’s a nurse on site and we have Fred Victor housing workers coming in helping people to find housing. Without this shelter, no question, a lot of these people would be outdoors.”