The plight of Montreal’s homeless is heartbreaking at the best of times, but never more than during the city’s notoriously harsh winter cold snaps. The sight of people camping out and panhandling in the frigid temperatures can leave many of us with feelings of sorrow and helplessness. But for third-year McGill Political Science student Victoria Kalisky, it was an opportunity to take bold action to make the lives of those on the streets a lot warmer.
On Jan. 22, Kalisky created a GoFundMe page to raise money to purchase warm clothes for homeless Montrealers. With help from family, friends and corporate partners, she has been able to distribute hundreds of parkas and other essential winter accessories to homeless shelters throughout the city. In its first two weeks, the page has raised more than $27,000, with a goal of raising $10,000 more.
“I wanted to reduce their suffering”
Kalisky got the idea for the page during a routine shopping trip in her neighborhood last month. Feeling her cheeks burn up in the intense cold, she tried to imagine what life was like for those who have to spend a lot more time outdoors than the time it took her to walk a few blocks.
“I see the Milton Park urban Indigenous homeless people every day,” Kalisky said. “While doing my groceries in -30°, I felt disturbed by the idea that men and women would spend their entire night in that painful cold. I wanted to reduce their suffering.”
At around the same time, she read a news story about a woman in her 60s who was found dead outside an entrance to the Berri-UQAM metro station on a night when temperatures dipped well below -20°C. It was the second time in 10 days that an unhoused Montrealer died from exposure to extreme conditions.
This winter has been an especially harsh one for those without a place to call home. While an average January in Montreal would see overnight lows dip below -20°C eight times, this past month saw that happen 17 times. Making matters worse, space restrictions at shelters dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing more people than usual out into the streets at night.
A team effort
The response to Kalisky’s GoFundMe effort was swift. Her father Lorne, the owner of a liquidation business, got some corporate friends to donate about $6,000 on the first day. As word of the fundraising effort spread in the media, donations continued to pour in steadily. He spoke with a local distributor about purchasing the coats, managing to get hundreds of them, normally valued at $300 apiece, for just $20 each. Meanwhile, Kalisky spoke with Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter, about coordinating the delivery.
“Our team spent the next few days delivering and distributing coats to homeless shelters,” Kalisky said. “During our first delivery at Cabot Square, we handed out 150 coats in thirty minutes. Undertaking an emergency initiative like this at a quick pace requires a combination of talking to local experts, fundraising, logistical support, and being present and empathetic.”
Kalisky’s team has so far delivered 732 winter coats, along with 1,200 hats, 1,000 pairs of gloves, 232 children’s snowsuits, and 165 children’s coats to several local charities, including the Native Women’s Shelter, Resilience Montreal, the Open Door, and La Maison du Père. She says as long as the donations roll in and the situation remains urgent, she and her team will continue purchasing and handing out winter clothes.
Apart from easing the immediate needs of those in need, Kalisky hopes her efforts can inspire other people to take action. In addition to the cash donations, she has received a flood of emails from people offer their own winter clothes. A local fruit supplier has also donated about 2,000 oranges for shelters, and a medical equipment supplier has donated 2,000 face masks.
Meanwhile, her efforts have also inspired people outside the city.
“After hearing about this fundraiser, an individual in Toronto purchased 1,000 winter jackets for Toronto’s homeless,” Kalisky said. “A student in Quebec City has also expressed interest in organizing this initiative for their homeless community.”
Governor-General Mary Simon also offered praise for the Kalisky’s efforts. During a recent interview with Montreal radio station CJAD 800, Simon thanked the Kaliskys for their compassion and their proactive approach to helping those in need. Meanwhile, Lorne Kalisky told the radio station that given the overwhelming need they’ve seen on the streets this winter, they are considering making this an annual campaign.