A lifeline through shelters

Jan. 14, 2019


By Jacinta Kuznetsov

With the death of a woman in Toronto last week, it brings the number of deaths while attempting access to a clothing donation bin up to eight – a number that began to be tracked since 2015. This week, Mayor John Tory requested the review of the bins throughout the city be sped up, whether the location and the design contributed to the death of the woman the media has been informed was named Crystal.

Having spent years volunteering with different community social service organizations in Canada, specifically Toronto, there is no doubt that type of review is too narrow. CanadaHelps outlined that in 2018, human and social services accounted for just 9 percent of individual charitable donations throughout Canada, with the bulk of spending going toward health and wellness and child development. Certainly it would be unhelpful to outline services less worthy of donations or funding. It would be hard, however, to overlook the push from social service providers whenever tragedy wreaks through their communities, to remind people they need more resources and funding allocated.

One of the services offered at Sistering is one that tends to get the most attention with news media, which is to encourage bringing in gently used clothing for women and families. A couple of years ago I posted a video on social media to remind people that it’s not only easy but therapeutic to go through your wardrobe and donate items. I took a bag of clothes to the organization and started my volunteer shift. Downstairs, they have closets with seasonal clothing available for the women. If they need any specific items, we help them search for it. They are given a time limit, usually five minutes, to seek and try on what they could use. It is done in shifts, with the women looking forward to this time and placing their names on a line sheet to get their time slot. What sticks out amongst this process is the sincere excitement these women have. Few of them have anything more than what they carry around with them. To be able to get something that adds comfort, warmth and a stronger sense of self identity by being able to express their personalities is so charmingly important. One of my greatest memories comes from the first time I helped women pick out new clothing.

Volunteering with these organizations has allowed me to deeply empathize with lives that otherwise could have been just another news story. They would have been another face on the street. They reminded me of the importance of community, of building out a support system that allows people to have mental illness, addiction or any social disorder, while providing a space of understanding, non judgement and acceptance. Many times, this is the first time in their lives when they are encouraged to connect, with no expectations. Organizations like Sistering in Toronto offer life-saving resources for the city’s most at-risk women. With that demanding task, they still offer services for finding suitable housing, employment and wellness programs for those able and ready to transition out of homelessness. They do this with drizzling federal and provincial budgets – budgets that get shifted and changed annually.

The importance of these services is not always given the attention it needs and sadly, tend to only be echoed primarily after tragedy. But what is it we can do to continue to grow these services and allow for programs that have been stripped of federal funding to remain at the heart of these communities?

Volunteer your time. If it’s once a week or once every six months, walk into a local social service organization and ask how to get involved. Do not hold it against them if at the time, they state there isn’t any volunteer room. This is likely because services have been cut and they may be in flux. Ask if any of your skills could help in the future. Do their photographs, build their website. There is always something you can do.

Donate to human and social services. At 9 percent, there is ample room for monetary improvements. This starts with an individual. Even donations to international development charities surpass localized ones with over 10 percent going outside the country.

Elect leaders who place value on funding and growing community social-service-based programs. From social services to the arts.

Without the persistent participation from the surrounding community and continual charitable donations, lives like Crystal’s will continue to be a part of a system that leaves many in a cycle of desperation. With more of an active, engaged citizenry, the desperation lessens and allows members seemingly on the outskirts of our society to have a more inclusive, accessible means to the resources they need to survive. Having another death in a clothing donation bin is merely representative of an entire system that needs more funding, resources and accountability.

Jacinta Kuznetsov is a television producer, women’s rights advocate, and social service volunteer, including for Sistering.