It is mid-morning in a packed upstairs kitchen at The 519 community centre and Kristen Ireland is brandishing an eggplant and making upbeat and practiced demands.
“Somebody has got to cut the eggplant,” she declares, before flipping the tubular purple fruit into a set of ready hands, followed by an extremely large knife.
“Knife skills, remember,” she said, offering it out handle first. “Pass it so you don’t kill somebody.”
Ireland is a health promoter with the Inner City Family Health Team, a group of health professionals dedicated to caring for former or current residents of Seaton House and people who are experiencing homelessness.
Brandon, who took and is diligently cutting the eggplant into cubes, is a health team client and has stayed for two years at Seaton House, Toronto’s largest shelter.
At The 519 he is part of a team of chefs, working to learn how to prepare healthy and affordable meals, as part of a life skills program called Street Eats.
“The most important thing is we learn from each other and master some skills,” said Brandon. People who don’t have housing, he felt it was important to say, are often isolated and lonely and benefit from group programs.
The cooking program “warms my heart,” he said.
Arnoldo Alcayaga, who at one time lived in an emergency shelter, was part of a group who came up with the workshop, with health team registered nurse Roxie Danielson and his own doctor.
He was a health team client and wanted to find a way to give back because of the support he received.
“Emotionally and spiritually you have to nourish your body and the best way to do that is to be aware of what you put in your body,” said Alcayaga, who is a chef.
To do that properly, he said, you need to be instructed on how to pick, cook and find foods within your budget.
Each session one of the men, all health team clients, picks out a recipe to make. Brandon chose pesto and pasta salad, topped with shredded cheese and tiny tomatoes from the health team’s garden.
With Ireland’s help he coaches eight men through the hour and a bit it takes to turn out a pasta dish in a tiny and somewhat chaotic kitchen. The room is packed with jostling and laughing men, trying to communicate over the general din and a sputtering and roaring blender.
The program runs every three weeks and is a partnership between the health team and The 519, a multi-service, city agency serving the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups.
The 519 donates the kitchen and the money for the food.
“We have done everything from tamales to Chinese food,” as well as indigenous recipes, said Curran Stikuts, community organizer, who also does a fair bit of the grocery shopping.
Stikuts said programs like Street Eats help provide a bit of additional food security for people struggling to get by in Toronto.
He said in the last year The 519 provided more than 12,000 meals, just through their drop-in program and demand continues to rise.
The men of Seaton House are facing an uncertain future. The shelter is scheduled for demolition in 2019, according to the city’s website. Construction is expected to take place from 2020 to 2023, provided council approves funding in 2018.
There is a relocation plan in the works, but regardless of where they live many will continue to face the challenge of trying to live in Toronto on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.
Most single men on ODSP who are living in social housing would be left with about $649 each month after paying rent. Those paying market rents would have far less.
“ODSP just doesn’t cover the cost of living and eating well. It just doesn’t match what people need anymore,” said Danielson.
Danielson, who helps run the class, said healthy food is a vital part of preserving health and preventing cardiovascular issues or conditions like diabetes from getting worse.
Michael, a class participant and former Seaton House resident, now lives in supportive housing. In addition to ODSP, he receives what is known as a special food allowance, of $250 each month.
“Seaton House was good to me in many ways,” particularly because of programs he was connected to, he said.
He still relies on food banks for staple items, like pasta and rice and canned goods. The bulk of the allowance is spent on fresh produce and protein.
One of the biggest appeals of the program, he said, is they are taught how to transform donated food items into decent meals, without a huge extra cost.
“You get to meet people with a common purpose,” he said.