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Kids with no shoes or beds. Why these volunteers say Toronto newcomers are desperate for household items

A family from Afghanistan arrives at the Donway Covenant United Church in Don Mills. It’s a couple and their three-year-old son and a daughter that’s only two weeks old, swaddled in a blanket.

Amina Khote and dozens of other volunteers have set up a swath of furniture, toys, clothing and kitchen appliances at the church for the family to take home with them. It’s all free, including the delivery. 

Khote is the founder of Home Essentials Newcomer Support (HENS), an organization that gathers household items for new immigrants and refugees in need in Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park or Scarborough. It’s run in collaboration with the church and a host of other charity organizations.

She says HENS began operating out of the church last fall to meet increasing demand for supplies. Since launching an online intake form for newcomers in November, 392 families have submitted applications and the group has served 95 families so far, she said. 

“It’s really bad. It’s hard for newcomer families to try to navigate through all the different challenges that they have to go through,” she said. “Most of their money goes towards the rent…so they reach out to me and they say, ‘I have nothing.'”

Khote and volunteers at HENS say the housing and affordability crisis has made settling in Toronto all the more difficult for newcomers. No one at HENS is paid and they rely solely on volunteers to operate. To meet the needs of more families quickly, organizations like HENS say they need more support and funding from anyone able to help.

Volunteer-run groups are having to step in to provide essential services for those in need, she said. Khote said they often make deliveries where they see multiple families living in a single apartment, or where children are sleeping on the floor as they have no mattresses. 

“They have nothing, just a carpet. And it’s really hard to see that,” she said. 

Family struggling to afford furniture

The family, who arrived from Afghanistan a year and half half ago, picks out a dining room table that volunteers load into a van for them. 

HENS sets up appointments with five families from their list every Thursday. Each family gets to browse the items, and the church has multiple rooms with each dedicated to different supplies, including a room for baby clothes and toys. 

Volunteers then pack everything up and ensure they get delivered. 

clothes on hangars
Clothing donations are some of the items HENS offers to newcomers. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

The father of the family, who CBC Toronto is not naming as he is concerned about stigma while he is searching for work, says he’s had trouble finding a job in his field. 

In Afghanistan, he was a teacher and also did some construction work. But with limited English, he says it’s been difficult to land a job.

“The home rent is very high. So newcomers need support,” he said.

Receiving free furniture and items for his son and new baby daughter is helpful, as he and his wife have other concerns to worry about, including renewing forms at Service Canada this week, he said.

“We have many problems that we are facing,” he said. 

Organization wants to increase operations

The HENS team says most of the families they help are facing similar issues. Out of the 392 families who want their help, 333 reported on their applications that they had children under 18 years old.

The majority of families reported they speak Pashto (60 per cent) and Dari (50 per cent) and another 20 per cent reported speaking Farsi, the organization says.

Khote has helped connect newcomers to household items since 2018 through her community work in health care in the Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon neighbourhoods. But then she met Cathy Paterson, who coordinates the church’s annual fall sale.

Paterson was receiving a mountain of donations from the community and thought more should go to families in need. The tenant at the back of the church had left, so there was lots of room for the items.  And Khote was able to bring in the families through her connections. 

The goal for this year is to come up with a long-term strategy so the organization can help more families, she said. “I don’t think this need is going to go away anytime soon,” she said. 

Khote says these families are desperate for basic items, with the most in-demand clothing being shoes, she said.

two rooms
A volunteer organizes items at the Donway Covenant United Church in Don Mills. Home Essentials Newcomer Support has multiple rooms with donated items for new immigrants and refugees to choose from. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

“The one incident we had, there was a child who came in with no shoes, just slippers, and it was snowing outside. And we showed him a pair of shoes…and gave him a brand new pair of socks and he got so excited,” she said. 

With more funding, Khote says the hope would be to run the furniture bank five days a week. She emigrated from India to Canada as a child in the 1970s and grew up in Thorncliffe Park and says she doesn’t recall the rental issues and affordability concerns she’s seeing now.

“It’s much, much worse…they need help” she said.

Thorncliffe Park bureau graphic

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