Homeless people in Toronto left with few places to go due to extreme cold, COVID-19.

Person plows through the snow in heavy Toronto blizzard. January 17. Photo by Enzo Giroldo

After a slow start to winter, the cold has arrived in Toronto, and it came with frigid wind chills and incredibly high amounts of snowfall. Last week, during January 15, Toronto had a windchill of -30ºC in the morning, and throughout this week, wind chills stayed under -10º C, hitting under -20ºC at times. 

A couple talks outside during a heavy snowfall in Toronto, ON. January 20, 2022

On January 15, Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for the York region due to those -30ºC wind chills. Then, on the 17th, the city of Toronto got its heaviest snowfall since 2008, with more than 30cm of snow falling overnight from Sunday to Monday.

And with such low wind chills throughout the week, the city switched a lot of its focus to the people who don’t have anywhere to shelter from the cold. Toronto opened four warming centres and is currently operating 26 temporary sites to provide social distancing for people in the shelter system. That is on top of 75 permanent shelters already in the system. 


‘We’re very nervous of people freezing where outreach workers can’t find them” Jody Steinhauer, Founder, President and CBO of The Bargains Group

The Bargains Group is one of the largest companies of its type in North America. They sell items in bulk quantities for companies looking for wholesale discounts, as well as for non-profits and social organizations across the continent trying to distribute basic clothes, hygiene necessities, winter essentials, etc. to people in need.

Jody Steinhauer. Founder, President and CBO of the Bargains Group. Photo courtesy of Engage&Change/Jody Steinhauer

Jody Steinhauer started the group in 1988, and today she’s also founder and president of Engage & Change, the organization responsible for Project Winter Survival and Project Water, two of the most important charity programs for Toronto’s homeless. 

Project Winter Survival distributes more than 10,000 survival kits to homeless outreach organizations every year. The kits include more than 30 items such as sleeping bags, winter gloves, hand warmers, winter hats, and others.

Steinhauer says this winter, her organization has received more than 18,000 requests for survival kits. The number is attributed to not only the very low temperatures that we’re now seeing but mostly to the instability brought to the shelter system and the homeless by the pandemic. 

As of January 21, the City of Toronto is reporting 103 active outbreaks in shelters and congregate settings. The figure is more than double of January 16, when, according to CTV, the city was reporting 50 outbreaks in the same settings. 

The heavy snowfall that hit Toronto and much of Ontario on the 17th has deeply impacted Steinhauser’s charity. According to her, they were supposed to send out their last round of survival kits to organizations this Friday the 21st, but ended up having to push it off since “the warehouse parking lot where we’re holding everything has 6ft of snow in it”.

People waiting in line for free lunch boxes at a Cabbagetown shelter in Toronto, ON. January 20, 2022

When asked by S@Y News how the blizzard has impacted her charity’s contributors, she said they were also dealing with outreach workers not being able to move around snow or even come to work because of it. 

“I’m getting calls to my charity from individual homeless people, which I’ve never had before, begging me (saying) “Can you get someone to come bring me a kit?” It just breaks your heart…” Jody Steinhauer, Founder, President and CBO of the Bargains group.  

When asked about the city’s response to protect the homeless, Steinhauser said “They are doing some great things” and “They are moving forward… It’s just not enough and not fast enough, that’s the problem”. 

Organizations estimate around 10,000 homeless people currently living in Toronto. As of January 21, there are 7,623 people in Toronto’s shelter system according to the city, and the emergency shelter programs, are at 97.4% of their full capacity. On January 19, the City of Toronto put out a press release announcing an extra 60 rooms for the COVID-19 Isolation and Recovery Site so that people experiencing homelessness who are COVID-positive can social distance in the shelter system. 

“The City of Toronto will continue to prioritize the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness during this pandemic and especially during this wave.” Toronto Mayor John Tory 

If you want to donate to Engage & Change or you’d like to get more information, visit canadahelps.org or bargainsgroup.com

If you or someone you know could use help from the shelter system call 311, or visit toronto.ca

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