Solving Homelessness Together

Q&As about Toronto's cold weather drop-ins

As part of its winter readiness, the City funds two community agencies to provide 24-hour cold weather drop-in services continuously for the coldest weeks of the year. Last year, these services were well-utilized, especially overnight. That's why the City opened an overnight-only program for winter 2016-2017 at the St. Lawrence CRC in the downtown east side of the city. The two 24-hour drop-in programs refer people to the St. Lawrence program so self-referrals are discouraged.

We've prepared this set of Q&As in response to community members wanting more information about the services available at cold weather drop-ins and how their availability supports vulnerable residents, connecting them to services they need, including assistance to find appropriate permanent housing. Also, you can refer to this client journey map which shows how services are accessed.

If we did not address your questions, or you would like to share your thoughts, please email: This account is monitored during regular business hours.

General questions about cold weather drop-ins

ExpandWhat is a cold weather drop-in?

The City funds 28 drop-ins across the city. Two agencies providing drop-in services, St. Felix Centre Drop-in and Margaret's Toronto East Drop-in, were funded to remain open 24/7 between December 15, 2016 and March 15, 2017.  Margaret's also operates a smaller, overnight-only program that is located in the St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre on the Esplanade. These are called cold weather drop-ins. In addition, the City funds two drop-in services that are available 24/7 year round for women and trans women only.

All drop-ins work with people who are homeless, marginally housed or socially isolated, including men, women, transgender people, youth, seniors and families. They provide a range of services that can include free or low cost meals, showers and laundry, social/recreational programs, housing support, and referrals to other services such as shelters, health care, trusteeship, case management, and employment supports.

ExpandWho operates the drop-ins?

Margaret's Housing and Community Support Services operates the Margaret's Toronto East Drop-In and the St. Lawrence overnight program. St. Felix Social Ministries Outreach operates the St. Felix Centre Drop-in. Both are well respected agencies with expertise in providing drop-in services and working with people experiencing homelessness. In both cases the drop-in program is year-round, with Margaret's daytime programing running during the week when it is not functioning as a cold weather drop-in, and St. Felix operating 9 am to 6:30 pm Mon-Thurs and 9 am to 2:30 pm on Fridays. In the case of St. Lawrence, Margaret's delivers the overnight service while Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division supervises the facility operation.

Staff working with these agencies are dedicated and highly skilled professionals. Many have become well acquainted with those who use their services; all see drop-ins as not only providing services in demand by vulnerable residents but also as providing opportunities for engagement that can lead to life-changing interaction with caseworkers, housing workers, employment supports, and health care practitioners.

ExpandWhat services are available at cold weather drop-ins?

At cold weather drop-ins staff provide a welcoming place for people seeking warmth. People will be offered meals and snacks. There are showers, laundry facilities, clothing banks, harm reduction supplies, and community-based activities such as board games, card games, and movies.

Depending on the time of day, a visitor may be offered a mat and a quiet place to rest or sleep, or an opportunity to participate in structured programming (for example, Margaret's offers a women-only art therapy class).

Staff can make referrals to other services such as mental health and justice, and health care. Computers are available for use, and anyone can print off a document or fax a resume.

Housing workers are available as well at the two main drop-in programs and have had growing success in helping people find permanent housing.

ExpandWhat is the capacity and what happens when this is reached?

Combined capacity at all three facilities is about 160.

If a staff member at either of the two main programs programs feels they cannot offer a sleeping space to someone overnight, they have been instructed to offer a referral to another service. Clients are never simply turned away.

The referral can be any or all of the following depending on preferences of the client and other factors that may include any existing service restrictions. Drop-ins will provide either a taxi or a transit token based on the distance and the time of day:

  • An offer of a space at the St. Lawrence overnight drop-in program; staff will call ahead so that the client is welcomed personally on arrival
  • An offer of a referral to another overnight drop-in service that is appropriate (specifically, one of the two year round women's drop-in programs that operate 24/7)
  • An offer of referral to an Out of the Cold program
  • An offer of a shelter bed in an appropriate emergency shelter program
  • An offer of a space at the 24/7 Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre's street respite program

ExpandWhat is the St. Lawrence overnight drop-in program? Is it permanent?

Because of concerns about overcrowding during winter 2015-2016, the City looked to create a third cold weather program but was unable to locate an appropriate facility or operator for a 24/7 service. Instead, an overnight drop-in program was located at St. Lawrence Recreational Centre on the Esplanade. The service is available 9 pm to 9 am seven days a week from December 15, 2016 through to March 11, 2017 and from March 18 through to April 15, 2017.

Service is available in two program rooms in the Community Centre. Mats are available for sleeping. Participants may choose not to sleep and can engage in quiet activities such as working with staff to find housing, reading a book or newspaper or socializing with other participants. Snacks are available throughout the night, but no formal meals are served.

Participants are referred to this location by two regular drop-in services that operate 24/7 throughout the winter season.

The overnight drop-in at St. Lawrence is intended to be a one-time service enhancement. The effectiveness of opening City-owned community centres for this type of program will be evaluated after the drop-in closes on March 11, 2017 and this information will inform future service planning.

St. Lawrence: Questions about safety and cleanliness

ExpandShould I be concerned about safety?

Individuals seeking respite at the drop-in program need safety from the cold and an opportunity to rest. The drop-in will not open until 9 p.m. when the facility is closed to the general public. In the morning, people will start leaving at 7 a.m. and agency staff will ensure all drop-in participants have left the site by 9 a.m. As no formal breakfast will be offered at this location, participants will receive transportation assistance to go to the main drop-in locations for breakfast.

ExpandHow are you preventing the spread of bed bugs and lice?

Issues of bed bugs and lice are not common in the drop-ins; however, should they be needed, drop-in staff have protocols in place for managing potential issues with pests while respecting the individual who is being asked to undergo treatment. These protocols are based on guidelines provided by Toronto Public Health for use by the general public, including schools dealing with children reported to have lice. In general, with respect to cleaning the facility, cleaning staff are available all night to assist with cleaning duties. Full-time staff arrive at 6 a.m. daily. Both the overnight and daytime staff maintain existing standards of cleanliness.

St. Lawrence: Questions about logistics of service use

ExpandWhat is the city doing to prevent loitering after they are dismissed from the drop-in?

Participants in the drop-in program at St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre will be referred to this location by two regular drop-in services that operate 24/7 throughout the winter season. The program will be open at 9 p.m. People will start leaving the site at 7 a.m., with the agency running the program ensuring all drop-in participants have left the site by 9 a.m. As there is no formal breakfast at this location, participants will receive transportation assistance to get to the main drop-in locations for breakfast. They will be encouraged to go to the main drop-in for breakfast once they leave the building in the morning, but are free to go anywhere they choose. Of course, like others in the city, people experiencing homelessness are free to lawfully use public spaces, such as the St. Lawrence CRC.

ExpandWith children arriving at school early, how are you dealing with security issues?

There is security staff onsite while the drop-in is open. Staff from the City, including Parks, Forestry and Recreation and Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, and Margaret's have been meeting regularly and have developed a plan to handle any security issues should these arise. This includes provision for additional security staff should this be deemed necessary, and a communication plan. Staff at Margaret's are very skilled and they have accumulated valuable experience in providing overnight drop-in services, having operated a cold weather drop-in for the last two years at Dundas and Sherbourne.

ExpandWhy are the doors to the program locked overnight?

The need to manage program occupancy, maintain the safety of service users and to confirm the security of the facility are the reasons the doors are locked overnight. Doors are not locked at the other cold weather programs, although doors are regularly kept locked at shelters and at the two year-round 24-hour drop-in services for women. Again, the experienced staff running the program would never turn away someone who showed up for service without a referral. Security has been instructed to regularly check the entranceway and a front-door buzzer will be installed by January 6.

St. Lawrence: Selection of facility

ExpandWhy did the City choose this community centre and not another location?

The City applied a number of key criteria in selecting St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre. The overnight drop-in location had to be centrally located in the downtown core, accessible, and close to 24-hour transit services. The facility had to have bathroom, shower and kitchen facilities and at least one room where mats could be laid down for sleeping. There were also a number of building design elements that were assessed. The range of available facilities in the downtown core was limited and St. Lawrence CRC was the only available facility that met all of the City's key criteria.

ExpandAre there other overnight shelter or drop-in services located near schools and child care centres?

Yes, the City funds or operates 59 shelters and 29 drop-ins across Toronto year-round and many are located in the vicinity of schools and child care centres. An example of a site in close proximity to a child care centre is Fort York Residence, which houses 98 men and is located beside City Kids, a child care facility for 72 children ranging in age from 0-5. Both programs operate safely for all participants.

ExpandWhy was the community not informed when deciding to place a shelter in a centre used by children?

To clarify, this is not a shelter program. It is an overnight drop-in program operating during the coldest part of the winter. St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre is a City-owned facility open to the public. City staff have met with representatives from the school and daycare and parent council to explain the overnight cold weather drop-in program, listen to their concerns, and share information on how the City and the program operator will be addressing these. Questions from these meetings have been incorporated into this Q&A.

ExpandAre other community centres in the area also being used for a drop in centre?

Last winter the City funded two community agencies to provide 24-hour cold weather drop-in services. Demand for these services indicated a need for an additional location for individuals seeking respite from the cold. This need is especially high between December 15 and February 28 each year, according to Toronto Public Health's study of cold weather related emergency department visits. The need for this additional service is most acute in the centre/east part of the city. A number of locations were investigated for feasibility over the summer, including other community centres, current drop-in services, and other City facilities. St Lawrence CRC was chosen because of its location, the fact that the facility is accessible, and that it is close to 24-hour transit.


ExpandCan data on service use during last winter be provided?

The following table shows occupancy at the drop-in services at 4 a.m., which is when occupancy across the homeless service system is taken. The cold weather drop-ins were open continuously from January 1 – February 29, 2016 and opened during Extreme Cold Weather Alerts on March 1, 2, 3 and April 5, 2016.



Saint Felix Centre