How We Can All Help Combat Homelessness in our Communities
The literal meaning of the Jewish prayer Ve’ahavta is ‘and you shall love.’
The mission of the Jewish humanitarian organization, Ve’ahavta, founded 24 years ago by the gregarious and passionate community advocate Avrum Rosensweig, goes even further. Its mandate: 'to promote positive change in the lives of people of all faiths and backgrounds who have been marginalized by poverty and hardship' through ‘tikkun olam,’ or ‘repairing the world.’
The Ve’ahavta team of dedicated staff and an army of volunteers do this in many ways - through daily outreach and food & clothing delivery to the thousands of people living on the streets of Toronto, as well as through their Skills Academy, providing essential job-skills training and support, and through arts & photography-based programs that encourage people who are experiencing homelessness to capture their their lives from a raw and real perspective.
And it’s working. Take the story of Olufunke Asemota, a single mother and graduate of Ve’ahavta’s nine-week Building Foundations for Women (BFW) program. When Olufunke arrived in Canada from Nigeria in 2018 with her daughter, she could barely speak the language and lived in a shelter. Now, with Ve’ahavta’s help, she has her own apartment and a job in the accounting field.
Olufunke is also now a volunteer with Ve'ahavta, paying it forward and helping others, as chronicled in this Toronto.com story.
“We really don’t know how far acts of kindness will go and where they’ll lead to. And so that’s why we do what we do. It’s just really powerful,” says Cari Kozierok, Ve’ahavta’s Executive Director.
Read more about Veahavta’s life-changing programs and services here and find out how YOU can help in my Q&A with Cari, below. ]
Cari, how crucial are Veahavta’s programs and services to the people who need them?
Our programs and services are so important to our community and we have many different kinds of programs geared to different segments of society. We have our outreach van, which has been serving people who are experiencing homelessness in Toronto, for 24 years. And we are about to get a second van. This has long been a dream for us and it’s finally going to happen.
What people may not realize is that, when we’re talking about the homeless population, it actually comprises people from many different situations. For example, you may be sleeping outside on a grate, you may be in the shelter system, or you may be unstably housed, which means that at any time, you could lose your housing due to employment or circumstance. Our program runs the gamut and we offer assistance to anyone who finds themselves in one of those situations.
How great is the need in our community, particularly since Covid?
There has been a huge increase in the number of people who are ‘sleeping rough,’ or sleeping outdoors, since Covid. The last street needs assessment in 2018 documented 578 people who are sleeping outdoors. We now estimate that there are well over a thousand. But we don’t even know for sure, because the new assessment was scheduled for April 2020, and it didn’t happen due to Covid.
On average there are about 8700 people who are experiencing homelessness at any given time. That number is now estimated to be over 10,000. Before Covid, the shelter system had about 7200 spots and that was never enough to meet the needs of the whole population. Now, there are only 5800 spots, because of the needs for social distancing.
It’s not pretty, there is a lot of need out there. There are a lot of encampments all over the city. Our van has remained operational throughout the pandemic because the need during the first lockdown was so intense and consistent. People were leaving shelters because they were afraid of outbreaks. They were braving it outdoors, because they figured they were safer there.
There has been this tremendous need particularly since Covid and some of it was fuelled by the closure of formal supports in the city and spaces, for example: safe injection sites, warming centres and different kinds of similar services and also informal supports, like libraries, community centres and food courts in office buildings. That’s where many people without a home go to use the bathroom or get food. With the closure of these spaces in the spring, many people couldn’t even wash their hands, let alone use the bathroom. Some services have reopened but they are not being utilized to the same extent. So we’re distributing about 200 times as many harm reduction supplies than we did before pre-Covid. The number of overdoses in the city has gone up exponentially since the start of the pandemic, so again, there is this huge need in our community that Veahavta helps to fill.
So that’s how we help with the urgent needs of society. But our other programs are equally as important. Our Work & Life Skills program is geared for those who have moved passed that point, they have a place to live and they are looking for work to sustain that lifestyle. We offer job-specific training programs and internships designed to help prepare people for re-entry into the workforce. They learn both the hard and soft skills that they’re going to need. Many of our clients are paid to be interns for Veahavta, they help with food preparation & distribution. So that gives them a current job as a reference when they do apply elsewhere and it gives them some basic income.
So how does an organization such as yours operate in these challenging conditions? What have you had to change?
Before the pandemic, when we knew what was coming, my team and I started planning for what we would do. I convened my senior management team and said, ‘this is going to be the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced and it’s also going to be the biggest opportunity.’ And that is exactly what has happened.
The biggest change has been to our Work & Life Skills program. We normally run three sessions per year and they are intense. When a person has made a decision to start a program at Veahavta, it’s a big deal, and to have to stop it midway (such as when Covid began and we were in lockdown), could really mean the difference between finding a job and helping to provide for your family, or being back on the street.
We were four weeks into our training program when Covid started and I remember thinking, ‘We can’t stop these programs. We can’t do that to these folks. We have to find a way.’ So we decided to convert the program to an online program. It sounds simple enough, but with the population we serve, it’s anything but. The imminent challenge that we faced is that many of our clients don’t own a phone or a laptop and they don’t have access to the internet. So we got very creative. We had a bunch of cellphones that were being used for our photography program. We got data plans and converted them over.
When people don’t have digital literacy skills, they tend to be very apprehensive. So we had to do a lot of handholding and they had to trust us that we would support them. The results were incredible. For the first time ever, we had a 100% graduation rate. Everybody stayed in the program and we found that the connections people made over a cellphone, were incredible.
The cell phone plans only had 3G of data, so we couldn’t do video conferences or use Zoom for example. So, instead we used WhatsApp (I call it ‘low-tech digital’) and what we discovered was that this method was not only possible, in some ways it was preferable. So, we began our second session in June. This time, we purchased Chrome books and installed internet access for those who didn’t have it, or boosters for those living in shelters. And again - and I still can’t believe this - we had a 100% graduation rate. I mean, truly remarkable and unexpected results.
We just completed an evaluation of these programs going digital and the results are mind-boggling. 96% of our students indicated that they would be willing to do online courses outside of the organization. What this means to me is that, when people are provided access that they didn’t have previously, it opens them up to the world, and to opportunities they just didn’t have. I mean, how many of us do all of our banking online? If we need to fix the toilet, we watch a YouTube video. If we need to connect with a friend, we text them. Imagine trying to apply for a job if you don’t have an email address or a phone.
This has all been an unprecedented learning experience for us. We learned we could do things that we didn’t think were possible, and the key was giving this population access to a computer & a connection to the internet.
How can people volunteer virtually right now, if they want to help?
We do have some virtual volunteer opportunities available right now, but we remain constrained by the regulations around Covid. For example, we can’t have rotating volunteers take van shifts or help prepare food for those shifts. We’ve had to cancel our food prep program. So we set up an account on Meal Train and had people sign up on specific days of the week to provide baked goods. Within an hour of putting this out, we were booked for two months straight with volunteers baking for us. So we said, ‘Ok let’s have them make sandwiches. Then soups. Then more baked goods.’ And the same thing happened, we were booked solid. We are still, receiving calls daily from the community, people really want to help! It’s amazing.
Our next volunteer project is that we’ll be asking the community to help us make blankets for those living on the streets. We’ll have kits and we’re hoping many people will volunteer to help. So keep an eye out for news on that project. We’re really excited about it.
The other thing that people can always do to help is have clothing drives and then pre-sort the bags for us (i.e. put all of the women’s sweatshirts together, or men’s pants together.) What we need most right now are gloves, hats and flashlights. But especially in this cold weather, we always need gently used men’s sweatpants, jeans, hoodies, and long johns; women’s leggings, sweatpants, and hoodies; and sleeping bags, individual hand sanitizers, and cloth face masks. We’re still taking donations at our office. We’re just asking people to call ahead, leave the bags outside the door and ring the bell first.
What are the stories that stand out the most to you, of the people you have met through Ve’ahavta?
There are so many stories and most of them make me cry. When we were giving out the cellphones for our clients in our Work & Life Skills program who were going virtual, we had them come in one last time to pick up their phones and learn how to use them.
One man came in. He said, “This is just something else.” I thought he was upset about the phone. I thought he was going to say, “I can’t do this.” So, I asked him what was concerning him. He said, “When I started this program, I was given a knapsack full of school supplies and other items. I feel really bad now because I was totally suspicious. I thought, ‘Oh now you’re going to make me pay for this.’ I just couldn’t believe someone would give me something for nothing. Because where I come from, people don’t just give you things without expecting anything in return.” Then he holds the phone up and says again, “I can’t believe you’re giving me this.” And so because of Ve’ahavta, this man has changed his mind about people. He now trusts again.
It was so touching, because it made me realize that these small acts of kindness and generosity that we do for people as part of this organization, mean so much. I think that if we can help people change their faith in other people, that’s a really big deal.
These small acts of kindness have the power to change a person’s life by restoring that faith and positivity, that they can rely on other people.
Ve’ahavta is about putting into tangible action the Jewish values that I am passionate about. And making it easy and doable for anyone to put these principles into action. That’s our message - and our mission.
While our van is distributing real things that people need today asap, they are also giving people hope, and kindness and showing them decency. Sometimes, those things go further than a sandwich or a hot meal.