As we head into the colder months, we are reminded of the importance of having a roof over one’s head, a warm place to sleep, and good food to eat. Not all members of our community get the same access to these essentials; and with a growing wealth disparity, the numbers of those experiencing homelessness will continue to climb

This week, we chatted with Annabelle Bernard, a CSW/Community Liason at Sistering (962 Bloor Street W), a multi-service agency for at-risk, socially isolated women in Toronto who are homeless or precariously housed. She shared a bit about what her clients face, and how we can better support those who are struggling.

SDTC: What are the biggest issues for those accessing Sistering’s services?

AB: Sistering offers a range of services in both our drop-in and upstairs office. For those accessing our case managers and medical clinic upstairs, some of the biggest areas for assistance are systems navigating i.e. help with Ontario Disability Service Plan, accessing services for newcomers, Ontario Works, housing help and medical access. Sistering works from a trauma-informed, anti-oppression and harm reduction perspective which allows us to lift some of the barriers such as racism, ableism, transphobia and drug use stigma that impede our participants and community members access to the services they need.

For participants accessing our drop-in on a short term and long term basis, affordable housing is often the foremost issue. It can take months if not years to find affordable housing that is accessible for participants with mobility issues and close to community and services.

For Sistering specifically, what could you use more of? 

Heading into winter, we are always accepting donations of socks, underwear, hygienic products and blankets.

In my role as community liason, most of my discussions with community stakeholders revolve around our need to inform our community on the breadth of services Sistering is providing. We are always thankful for folks who help assist us in that goal by putting on events such as fundraisers or movie nights (check out the soon to be opened Paradise Cinema’s monthly feminist movie night, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Sistering!) which directly helps us to improve our service delivery and spread awareness about the real and pressing equity issues happening in our city. Sistering is really a microcosm for issues happening all over the city, these issues include a lack of affordable housing, gaps in mental health supports and a reduction in community spaces. We appreciate any help in our fight against the systemic causes that bring individuals into Sistering.

What have you got enough of?

We are lucky to receive general clothing donations often enough that we are not as desperate of a need for them i.e. t-shirts, jeans, light jacket. However, we are always in need of warm clothing i.e. winter coats, winter boots, warm or insulated pants, gloves and toques. We do not accept razors or mouthwash!

What are other ways that people can make a positive impact on those experiencing homelessness in the city?

Being informed and understanding of the issues that cause homelessness is an important way for people to combat ongoing stigma against homeless people. Preventing stigma can start in our own friend circles, families and communities. There are a number of people in our field who are proposing important new ideas to combat the housing and opioid crisis: if you are on social media I would recommend following Toronto Street Nurses, Overdose Prevention Society, Health Providers Against Poverty, The Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. On a day to day basis, showing kindness when interacting with homeless folks goes along way!

Any misconceptions about homelessness you would like to clear up?

There is a lot of focus on individual choices when we talk about homelessness but in reality, we see how limited choices are for folks in precarious situations; whether it be financial, housing or with their mental health. I think that there are misconceptions about the extent of support that mental health services like CAMH can provide as well as what shelters can offer. For many of the folks who visit Sistering, stable and secure housing along with community involvement is the best solution for a diversity of issues. Without access to affordable and supportive housing, many of our participants will continue to make do in spaces that were never intended for long term use.

With the glut of help at this time of year–are there other months that you could use help more?

Post-holidays, we are in need of the same supplies warm clothing i.e. winter coats, winter boots, warm or insulated pants, gloves and toques, hygienic supplies and blankets. While the weather is still cold, January-April, we are definitely still in need!

What are ways we can mobilize to bring about systemic change to alleviate some of the underlying causes of homelessness in the city?

Engage with issues happening in your community around homelessness! Educate friends and family on the roots of homelessness in the GTA; support organizations and coalitions that are proposing solutions to systemic issues with your time, financial donation or social media platform.

Anything else to add?

I should also mention that Sistering is currently participating in two different research projects:
This Is Not Home, a national study with multiple research sites across the country examining the experiences and needs of multiply marginalized women and transwomen.
Making Visible-Unique Issues of Women’s Homelessness, a federally funded research study that addresses the need for a definition of women’s homelessness.

For more information on donating items or how you can get more involved with what we’re doing at Sistering, contact myself, Annabelle or Donna in our Fundraising department at Tel: 416 926 9762 ext. 233

For further information, see below:

Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness
Interviews with people discussing their lived experiences of homelessness
Defining homelessness 
City of Toronto’s Street Needs Assessment (2018)
Provides statistics and information on Toronto’s homeless population including their service needs, profiles and long term planning to support them