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Volunteers assemble ‘survival kits’ for homeless

TORONTO — With temperatures plummeting recently, the cold snap came as a bit of a shock to Torontonians.

But it was much worse for the homeless. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine being homeless, never mind living on the street in the extreme cold. When temperatures drop to extreme-cold levels, homeless shelters are overflowing.

Project Winter Survival (PWS), a volunteer-run organization that provides essential supplies to people living on the street during the winter, has this year distributed 3,000 “survival kits” through 172 agencies in the Toronto area.

The group’s 14th annual drive was launched Jan. 12. The first phase was a packing event at PWS headquarters, at the Bargains Group on Caledonia Road in Toronto. “In just over three hours, 200 volunteers packed 93,000 items into 3,000 survival kits for the homeless,” PWS co-founder Jody Steinhauer said.

Health workers predict that the situation on the street for the homeless in 2013 will be bad. Anne Marie Batten, a street nurse, said, “We had a record number of homeless deaths in 2012, and many shelters are full and overflowing.”

She added that the survival kits are essential for people living on the street, “as those individuals who have pets as a means of emotional support… cannot bring them into shelters… and couples who do not want to be separated [can’t stay in shelters]. We also use the kits to establish relationships with homeless people that have trust issues, such as individuals with mental illnesses and substance abusers.”

From clothing and food to personal-care items – and a sleeping bag – the survival kits often mean the difference between life and death for the homeless.

The second phase of the PWS annual drive was distribution day on Jan. 19, when the kits were loaded onto trucks by 150 volunteers. Picking up the kits were representatives from organizations such as Ve’ahavta: the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, Congregation Darchei Noam, the Red Cross, Covenant House, Scott Mission, Eva’s Initiative and the Salvation Army.

Ve’ahavta’s community outreach liaison, Ori Belmont, described the situation of one of Ve’ahavta’s homeless clients. “The gentleman that I spoke with is a very warm and endearing middle-aged Jewish man. Not unlike many others in his situation, extremely articulate and bright. Many erroneously believe that those living on the street, or in a shelter like this man, are neither,” Belmont said.

“I described to him the contents of a survival kit generously donated to us… He explained to me the socks, hat and water bottle would be particularly useful. This man’s home was behind a well-known kolel. He had a makeshift structure, sleeping cardboard boxes and a blue tarpaulin. His tallit bag was hanging from a tree drying off, as was his black hat.”

Belmont said the man told him, “My faith in humanity is strong, and despite my predicament, it will never change.”

PWS was founded 14 years ago by Steinhauer, chief bargain officer of the Bargains Group, a discount wholesaler, together with her husband, Lorne Simon. Since then, PWS volunteers have assembled and distributed over 15,000 survival kits.

“When we started to hear about the challenges of the homeless, we decided as business leaders to make a necessary contribution to help meet the overwhelming demand by local agencies that struggle to help the homeless survive the frigid Toronto winters each year,” Steinhauer said. “Sadly, requests for PWS kits continue to rise each year. We will never let this project end as long as there are homeless people on the street.”

Any one of those people on the street could be us, if we had a bad turn of luck, Steinhauer said.

Susan Minuk Special to The CJN, Monday, January 28, 2013