OOTC at Holy Blossom Temple a warm meal, friendship and shelter for those who need it

But organization and rules as well as compassion make the effort a success

It’s a chilly, Thursday winter’s evening. Time for most Torontonians to be heading home to a warm meal enjoyed with family and friends.  But what about those who are without?

For those unfortunates, there is Out of the Cold (OOTC), a Toronto-area network of 16 houses of worship, where those with nowhere to go can enjoy a warm meal, hospitality and a roof over their heads every Thursday from November to March. One such haven is the Holy Blossom Temple.

‘We say whatever needs to be done, let’s do it!’

A lineup of about 125 people, guests they are called, make their way down the stairs at the back of the temple to the banquet hall. Here they will be out of the cold. They pass a kitchen where volunteers are hard at work preparing dinner for them. The cooks arrive in the morning to prepare the food the guests will dine on.

A guitar duo tunes up. Tables are set. But this evening, March 9, a larger-than-expected group arrives.

OOTC staffers haul another table and chairs out of a closet. They find a place for it and set the table, white tablecloth and all. Next, a captain, whose task it is to see that everything is running smoothly in their sector of the floor, assigns servers to the table.

The evening goes on. No one would know that anything out of the ordinary happened since the extra guests are as well fed and entertained as the others.

“We are a very good example of the saying that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going,’ ” says Bob Charendoff, recalling how OOTC staff, all volunteers, handled the situation.

At the end of each session, Charendoff, who calls himself the program’s unofficial go-to-guy, sends out a report that opens up a discussion on what went well and what needs improving. When necessary, staff make the changes. It’s the Holy Blossom version of kaizen, constant improvement.

Charendoff, who started as a server 16 years ago, credits a veteran staff with the success of the program. Many have been with OOTC for over a decade.

“We are very well organized. We have people who have been here a long time and are committed to the program. We say whatever needs to be done, let’s do it!”

After dinner, there’s entertainment and a place to sleep for those who have none

Guests dine on a four-course meal of soup, salad, a main course including meat, freshly cooked vegetables and potatoes – nothing from the can – and dessert, including fresh fruit.

After dinner, guests can listen to live entertainment or play bingo. Should anyone need first aid or some medical advice, there’s a nurse on hand.

A professional artist runs the art program. Guests can try their hand at painting. Some come back each week to perfect their handiwork. There is an art show at nearby Beth Sholom Synagogue, where artists/guests can put their work up for sale.

Besides the art program, guests can play bingo for gift cards from Tim Horton’s given to the winners. There are 10 winners weekly. About  26 guests participate. This program has been going on for approximately 18 or 19 years. Laura Crangle co-ordinates and runs it with a group of faithful volunteers.

At the end of evening, about 40 spend the night on mats on the floor. All guests receive a bag lunch and TTC fare. Those who stay the night are served a warm breakfast before they depart.

Death of a homeless man gave birth to OOTC

Credit Sister Susan Moran and students at St. Michael’s College with starting the program 30 years ago.

The students had been befriending a homeless man who lived in the ravine near the school. When he froze to death, his death got the students thinking about what they could do about homelessness and gave birth to the program, which is designed to provide shelter to the homeless one day a week for the coldest 23 weeks of the year.

Sister Susan reached out to Toronto-area houses of worship to create the network that is now OOTC.

Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services oversees the operation of the network, supplying among other things, a nurse, legal advice and the orange-jacketed security guards at each OOTC location.

Entirely run by volunteers and funded by donations

The synagogue joined the network in 1995. It donates the space while funding for the project comes from donations from the congregation, the Lions Club and Mazon Canada as well as fund-raising concerts put on by sympathetic musicians such as Kenny Munshaw.

Along with Charendoff, and spouse Nadine, management comes from co-chairs Jill Witkin and Julie Solomon. Emily Rayson co-ordinates the efforts of the 450 volunteers who make OOTC go. There are no paid employees.

One young volunteer is Aiden, 12. He comes with mom, Naomi Epstein, who is a server. Aiden helps his mom. For him, it’s a learning experience, part of his bar mitzvah year project.

“He needs to understand that the world he lives in isn’t the world everyone lives in,” explains Naomi Epstein.

“I try to make them as happy as I can,” Aiden says. “I’m learning that people are different. But everyone deserves a hot dinner.”

Rules are key to keeping the doors open

Charendoff assures that what helps the temple go on opening its doors to the homeless are rules.

Guests check their coats at the door. Any drugs, alcohol and other contraband are confiscated before they reach the floor and returned to the guest the next day, no questions asked.

If they mix with guests, female volunteers cannot wear their hair long. It’s ponytails only. There are elastic bands available if necessary. No midriffs showing, either.

Female volunteers are told to “put your hands above your head. If your midriff’s showing, that’s not appropriate,” he says.

Should guests’ tempers flare, Charendoff moves in with a little, quiet diplomacy. Failing that, orange-jacketed security guards are there with a little muscle if needed.

They can use force if they have to, but he insists incidents where they’ve had to are “rare and rarer still is calling the police.”

‘We are there to make them feel they are somebody’

Co-chair Julie Solomon is a nine-year OOTC veteran. Solomon and co-chair Jill Witkin see to it that all goes smoothly on the floor. Solomon also liaises with Dixon Hall, assuring them that all is going well.

While some 35 to 45 guests are homeless and need a mat for the night, she says most are not homeless.

“Some want to socialize because they are alone. Others just can’t afford the food so they turn to us.

“And we are there to make them feel that they are somebody, that they are part of the community, that they have something to offer.”

She points out that programs like the art classes have helped some guests recognize their hidden abilities.

“If pieces are sold, proceeds go to both the guests and the OOTC program, so they feel they are part of something productive and something that recognizes their talents.

“That’s why we provide them with more than just dinner and a place to sleep if they need it.”

To learn more about OOTC at Holy Blossom Temple and to volunteer and donate, visit http://holyblossom.org/community-programs/out-of-the-cold/