Leaside United Church chooses cold to keep homeless warm

Team 'LUCY' joins nationwide walk-a-thon to raise funds, promote awareness of homelessness

By spending a night in the cold, Tanya Wiles-Bell hopes to bridge a generational gap in her church community while raising awareness about homelessness.

Leaside United Church, where Wiles-Bell serves as the director of Christian education, is registered to participate in a nationwide walk-a-thon and fundraiser called the ‘Coldest Night of the Year’ on Feb. 24. Its goal is to educate the public about poverty and homelessness across Canada.

Wiles-Bell, who is captain of ‘LUCY,’ the name of the church’s team, is responsible for creating opportunities for both families and youth to engage in activities outside of standard religious services.

“Often, young families and youth don’t feel empowered within churches,” she said. “Maybe they’re new (to the community) or they’re young, and churches tend to be heavily (populated) by the senior side.”

The ‘Coldest Night of the Year’ provides an opportunity for a multi-generational experience where individuals are able to face what it is like to walk the streets in the dead of night during the unpredictable and unforgiving Canadian winter, even just for a moment, Wiles-Bell explained. That’s why she believes this fundraiser will be “a perfect fit.”

“While it’s well and good to write cheques and give money to organizations… it’s more meaningful, it’s more powerful if you walk alongside somebody. You see things through their eyes,” she said.

Wiles-Bell encourages members of not only her Leaside community, but also the rest of Toronto, to join the event in the hope “that people start to look at it not as a ‘their problem,’ but as an ‘our problem.'”

David Reycraft is director of housing services at Dixon Hall, which operates an emergency winter program called Out of the Cold. It’s offered at 16 faith-based organizations, including St. Brigid’s Annex and Eastminster United in East York, to shelter the homeless from November to late April. The Leaside church participates at the Eastminster location.

“We (can expect to) see around 1,600 individuals (this year). It varies,” Reycraft said. “This winter we’ve seen a real surge in the number of homeless people.”

Street nurse and homelessness advocate Cathy Crowe emphasizes the importance of supporting initiatives that bring awareness to this issue, but said it’s not only a factor in the winter, but all year round.

“It’s more than just November, December, January and February,” she said.

Crowe and Reycraft both stress the necessity of providing affordable housing to the homeless.

“They can’t build their own houses… (We should help them) find housing in the city,” said Crowe, who is in favour of affordable housing projects such as that provided by St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing.

Reycraft would like to see additional shelters in East York “that are focused on rapidly moving people among the shelter systems and into… affordable and supportive housing,.”

Meanwhile, Wiles-Bell wants to use the ‘Coldest Night of the Year’ event to educate her community and help it understand homelessness. She’s also hoping to raise $1,000 through the walk-a-thon.

“We’re not a church that just sits on pews on Sundays,” she said. “We’re a church that gets out and walks and talks and acts out our mission.”

Anyone, even those who do not belong to Leaside United Church, is welcome to join Team LUCY. If you’d prefer to register your own team for the ‘Coldest Night of the Year,’ go to https://cnoy.org/register. Find further details about this event at https://cnoy.org