Drop-in provides shelter, food and a safe place to rest or sleep for women who otherwise have nowhere else to go.
It is dinner time and Suporna Chatterjee is singing to herself as she drifts through a row of long tables where women have gathered to share a meal.
“Don’t worry, about a thing,” she croons, getting part of the way through Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” as she gently places a plate of food and a disposable cup on a table, near a close friend.
As she floats back across the floor, a woman with long white hair at a nearby table responds to her by singing what sounds like opera.
The communal meal is taking place at Sistering on Bloor St. W., in the agency’s 24/7, women-only drop-in. The smell of cream of vegetable soup, and conversations in English, Spanish and Portuguese between clients and staff fill the space.
Sistering is a haven, where vulnerable women can find shelter, food and a place to rest or sleep. There are no beds, just a dozen reclining chairs, stacks of mats and spots on the floor.
Read more:Meet part of the family at Sistering
In a city where shelters are close to capacity, Sistering is also being used as a makeshift home for women with complex and worsening health issues and few long-term affordable housing prospects, particularly women in need of mental health support.
“This place should not have to exist. These women should have proper places to live,” said Sistering’s executive director, Patricia O’Connell. “The only thing you can say is it is better than a women sleeping on a grate or in a park.”
Sistering is low barrier, meaning women can come and go at all hours and won’t be kicked out for drinking or using drugs, though it isn’t permitted in the building. Women can sleep with their pets; two elderly cats and a black Chihuahua with a grizzled chin are part of the evening crowd. No names are required and many women simply go by nicknames or initials.
The night started with soup, salad, roasted potatoes, sausages, and a kind of veggie casserole for those who don’t eat meat. And then came a dance party, several clothing swaps, an argument over the use of the lone shower and a heated disagreement about the behaviour and territorial boundaries of the two resident cats.
During the meal, Chatterjee’s friend walked by, peered shyly at her between her fingers, and later stopped for a kiss on both cheeks and a warm hug.
“This is a very charming, charming lady; she doesn’t talk, she writes everything down, and we clicked since day one,” said Chatterjee, 40, who speaks Hindi, German and French, a language she slips into during conversation. “She is like my elder sister . . . I haven’t seen my own sister in 17 years.”
At Sistering, the front door is locked but the place is never closed, and the doorbell rings constantly as women are buzzed in throughout the night.
O’Connell said what the city needs are shelters with the same relaxed rules, real beds and mental health supports. City staff said although there is no planning underway for a new low-barrier shelter, a recently opened 60-bed facility on Kennedy Rd. is considered low barrier and women from Sistering have been referred there. That shelter filled shortly after opening.
Chatterjee has struggled with addiction. She said she has been clean for two weeks and wants to work. She was born in India and said it gives her perspective on poverty, how lucky people in Canada are to receive any help.
Sistering has been serving women for 35 years, providing housing and mental health support, and employment and arts programs.
The all-night, all-day drop-in opened in November 2015 after a woman was sexually assaulted twice while she slept on the stoop of a community agency on Dundas St. E. A second 24/7 drop-in, run by Fred Victor, was opened on Adelaide St. E. at the same time. Both receive city funding.
That first year at Sistering, 2,271 women visited the drop-in and now about 40 women stay overnight. One night, 55 women used the space.
To get one of the lounge chairs, you line up in the morning. The rest of the women sleep on mats. Some put their heads on tables, or sleep beneath them. Others lie across lines of plastic chairs in the dining room, or curl up next to cages holding their pets.
Women can stay for six weeks at a time, but then must take a three-day break before returning.
O’Connell said Sistering’s mandate is to meet women’s immediate needs and hope that once they are inside they will seek other services. She has nothing but praise for her staff, who are “running off their feet,” and respect for the enormously resilient women they serve.
Some, like Lesley MacKay, don’t sleep there but still come every day.
“I live by myself and I get lonely. There is nobody to talk to,” said MacKay, 56, who is legally blind and relies on Wheel-Trans.
She is applying for Toronto Community Housing because she said there have been multiple break-ins at her current apartment.
Another regular, Meghan, 69, can’t afford rent because she says her ex-husband won’t share his military pension. She has been sleeping at Sistering off and on for about a year.
“Some nights you just say, ‘Oh get me out of here, I don’t want to be here anymore,’ which is understandable because of all the ruckus,” said Meghan, who had been up for two days and asked her real name not be used.
She has made friends but wants to go back to an Etobicoke shelter that she said felt like a second home. She lost that bed when she rented an apartment, but it turned out to be filled with black mould.
“But that is the way it is when your husband takes the money and runs.”
Sistering operates with funding from the City of Toronto, the Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), through the Ministry of Health and the United Way, plus fundraising and private donations. O’Connell said Sistering applied to the city for more funding last summer, money they hoped to use to hire more staff, but that application was rejected. City staff said Sistering did receive money for a temporary overnight worker, as well as funds for housing supports and project funding.
O’Connell said a single counsellor at Sistering manages between 30 and 80 cases and they need people with expertise in mental health. Sistering did receive what is known as “pressure funding” or extra money from the ministry in 2014 and is currently applying for more funding so it can hire more help.
During the overnight drop-in, three staffers perform triage from the front counter, welcoming women, counting heads, providing food and clean socks, offering a sympathetic ear and de-escalating arguments.
The one shower is coveted space, and in the early hours of Saturday a woman has to be ordered out after an hour.
“Once they get in there it is like they are washing off the world,” said overnight staff member Patricia Crooks.
Shortly after 2 a.m., Chatterjee had come back from her night out. By 3:30, most of the 37 women in the drop-in are asleep. Some listen to music or use one of two desktop computers to watch movies, or search for housing or jobs.
It is during those quieter hours that E. States, another regular, rolls through the door. She is welcomed and fed, explaining how earlier that night she took a critically ill 24-year-old drug user to the emergency room.
At Sistering, States is part-mother, part-sheriff. She encourages women to eat, keep down the noise, offers comfort, and defends a woman who was upset at being touched while she used a computer.
“If you put your hands on that woman I will put my hands on you,” says States, 54, on one of her rounds.
“I was brought up in a very Christian environment. We never had much but we had a lot of love. Money doesn’t mean much to me,” she says.
The house where States was living was sold in August.
A poet and mother of six, States struggled with drugs and alcohol, but has been clean for two months. She is on track to become a peer harm-reduction worker at Sistering.
She hopes she might be able to find someone to love.
“If I could turn back the hands of time I wouldn’t change nothing, just take one day at a time.”
It is after 5 a.m. when States tries to help settle another dispute between two women, when their cats, both prone to spraying, get too close to each other.
Throughout the night and even at 7 a.m., Chatterjee never really rests.
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