Finding Our Common Humanity: Experiences from Homeless Connect Toronto 2018

Authors: Asia van Buuren, Chloe Brown, Stephanie Schwindt, Wid Yaseen

132 eye exams, 387 housing supports, 75 dental screenings. On first glance, you may think these are stats from an interdisciplinary healthcare clinic; in fact, they were services provided at the 6th annual Homeless Connect Toronto event ( Homeless Connect Toronto (HCT) is a charitable organization that organizes a ‘one stop shop’ event each year, providing individuals who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness with access to a variety of free services. This year’s event opened its doors to 1005 participants, 85 service providers, and 304 volunteers. As members of the Toronto Political Advocacy Committee (TPAC) -- a medical student group dedicated to health-based advocacy in Toronto -- we had the privilege of volunteering at this impactful event.

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The event model isn’t new -- it exists across North America and was introduced in Toronto to fulfill an unmet need. For Melody Li, the Executive Director and Founder of HCT, a key inspiration for the event is the connectedness it fosters within our community. Beyond the tangible resources that the event provides guests, HCT serves as a reminder of our shared humanity: “Part of what we do is creating a tangible service, and the other part of what we do is creating that safe environment for the people in the community and our volunteers to remember what it means to co-exist,” Melody noted. As student advocates, we were interested to learn more about why homelessness impacts so many, even though the breadth of this issue happening in our community often feels overwhelming, “The problem is that people don’t know what to do about the problem of homelessness even though they have an emotional reaction,” Melody explained. HCT provided an opportunity for us alongside other volunteers to gain an understanding of the heterogeneity of Toronto’s homeless community and how we can work together to offer support.

The majority of guests attending the event are new to homelessness or are at-risk of homelessness. As an organization, one of HCT’s goals is to engage in prevention strategies and capture individuals at the earliest stages of their journey. The on-site services are meant to form meaningful connections with the homeless community. “Figuring out what resources they can tap into. These are all things that they can do on site, and oftentimes it would take a lot of time to access all these resources on different days,” says Melody. Hundreds lined up hours before the event to access services, and many arrived with a plan for which services to prioritize, given the limited time and quantity. To help bring people to and from the event, HCT even organized shuttle busses from various shelters and drop-ins in the city. Conversations throughout the day revealed the barriers this community faces with accessing services across the city, whether it’s being unable to access public transit or navigating the healthcare system.

Given that the organization is entirely led by volunteers, there are many ways students and community members can support HCT. Whether you are interested in being on the planning team for the annual event or supporting guests on event day, there is a huge need for people to step in. As Melody said, “We really see ourselves as a place where people who may not know a lot about homelessness can start, and from there build on their knowledge, experience, and passion for this area of work. We encourage you to get involved at the event. It’s one day, low commitment, and great opportunity to get engaged and be part of the conversation.” The organization is always open to forming new partnerships, exploring different services they can offer, and learning about ways to connect with communities in other underserved areas of the city.

Homelessness is a continuum. Homeless Connect Toronto is a reminder that homelessness is not a shrinking problem. According to the 2018 Street Needs Assessment in Toronto, there are nearly 9000 individuals actively sleeping on the streets, in shelters, respite, or provincial institutions in one night, and this does not capture those who are precariously housed or at risk of homelessness. While HCT is doing tremendous work, it is clear that only a fraction of the people experiencing homelessness in our city are served each year. HCT draws attention to the importance of providing low barrier resources to this community, and for us, serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to address the systemic nature of homelessness. As medical students and TPAC members, we believe in the importance of personally connecting with communities in our advocacy initiatives and supporting the work of established organizations such as HCT. We hope that other student groups will join us at future Homeless Connect events in Toronto and Edmonton!

Lauren Beck