Shelter from the storm: Extreme weather and the duty of faith groups
Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Alta., is Canada’s oldest mosque. Its members know a thing or two about caring for community. With the city’s harsh winters and increasing extreme weather events, Al Rashid is supporting some of its most vulnerable neighbours — those experiencing homelessness — by opening their doors as a shelter.
Noor Al-Henedy is director at the mosque. She recalls the night in 2018 when they learned that a man had froze to death in a bus shelter.
“It had a very deep impact. We could not bear this while we were all warm in our houses,” she says. “We are a mosque. We were not prepared to be a shelter, but we understood that [city] shelters were getting full, and that also, some people were not comfortable going to shelters.”
The mosque community decided that night they would be a place to provide urgent shelter for the homeless.
“We all came together instantly, magnificently, beautifully,” Noor recalls. “The response from the broader community was overwhelming as well, with nurses, social workers and residents setting up, cooking food, connecting our guests to services and much more. We decided it was something we should always do.”
In 2022, the mosque partnered with the Mustard Seed and the City of Edmonton to add the mosque on transit bus route maps. The Mustard Seed, a non-profit serving five cities in Alberta and B.C., has been training mosque volunteers on how to keep its guests properly sheltered.
Noor says that on a typical day, they receive about 30 to 50 guests. She admits that it is no easy task for a faith-based organization to become an overnight shelter, given the potential for various crises, such as mental health issues. She points out that these organizations are not funded by the government but by donors. “So, resources can be a challenge. The mosque community raised $17,000 just for this one project. We also hired overnight security.”
Another challenge is retaining volunteers.
Noor attributes the Al Rashid community’s involvement in caring for people to their faith. “Doing acts of charity is deeply rooted within our belief system, it’s something we always carry with us. Acts of charity turn off the anger of God. Any act of kindness, even a smile, counts.”
Faith-based groups in Ontario and Alberta are helping their communities deal with the ravages of climate change, writes @BeatriceEkoko #ClimateAction #ClimateChange #Hamilton #Ontario
With regards to climate change, “the conversation is happening,” Noor says. “2021/2022 was one of the coldest we have seen in Alberta in the last 15 years.”
A Better Tent City
For Laura Hamilton of A Better Tent City in Ontario’s Waterloo Region, the intersection between climate change, climate justice and homelessness is self-evident.
Established in 2020, A Better Tent City is a cabin community for people experiencing homelessness for whom the shelter system does not work, or who are unable to access housing. The organization provides them with a tiny home of their own.
Hamilton began to view the issue of homelessness through the lens of climate change in her role as a community organizer with Divest Waterloo, itself a chapter of Faith & the Common Good, a national, faith-based environmental network that since 2015 has been exploring models for neighbourhood-based extreme weather resilience with a specific focus on vulnerable populations.
"Who, within our communities, are the least able to respond to the impacts of extreme weather?" Hamilton asks. "It's the people who don't have shelter… I realized that we had to lock arms with groups doing justice work because climate change is going to increase disparity and make things worse."
She depicts the struggles that weather events such as heavy downpours and wild winds create. "Tents get ripped or blown away. If you live unsheltered, you lose everything in a storm; shoes, socks — you have no way to dry these out because you have to keep moving, so you have nothing."
Last winter was "brutal" at A Better Tent City, with no running water and porta-potties that froze on the coldest days and nights.
"We had to get a hydro connection to the site, and then to the individual cabins. It took months to do that,” Hamilton says.
"During that time, we had a generator to heat the cabins, which cost about $4,000 a week to run. Eventually, we got funding from the region to cover these one-time costs."
Hamilton says the same thing applies to cooling. "The summer of 2021 was baking hot,'' she recalls. "Even with our insulated cabins, we have to create a separate space for people to cool down. We are in a location with little shade, and fans in small cabins can only do so much to keep people comfortable.”
The organization's model has inspired other Ontario communities such as Kingston, Woodstock and Hamilton that are working on their own versions of it, engaging community leaders, faith-based groups and municipal staff.
An unstoppable community champion, Hamilton is also a founding member of the Union Sustainable Development Co-operative which allows local residents to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in their community — that is, in affordable housing. The co-op has recently purchased its first property and is exploring options to retrofit its buildings to be more sustainable.
Asked what motivates her, Hamilton says, "Active hope, because despair comes easily and it can be crippling. Working with others to make change happen is the best antidote to despair. We started Divest Waterloo because we woke up to the reality of the climate crisis and also to the realization that we had tremendous privilege, and that our privilege was our best resource to make change happen.”
For Hamilton whose congregation is Parkminster United Church, that privilege comes from "access to resources that allow me to make things happen and not just watch; that’s how I live my faith.
"Rewards in heaven? That’s not really how I frame my beliefs."
(Reprinted with permission of Beatrice Ekoko who is a Hamilton, Ont., writer. She is the communications manager for Faith & the Common Good, an interfaith environmental network that supports greening and climate action for over 800 diverse faith and spiritual communities across Canada. A project manager of many years, Beatrice has worked across numerous environmental files, and is particularly proud of the work she did to enhance local biodiversity, bringing together a team of stakeholders whose efforts led to the City of Hamilton endorsing a Biodiversity Action Plan for the city (2020)).