Alex Winch says he didn't call the police when he saw, on security footage, someone come into his laundromat and steal two sweaters from an unsuspecting customer.
Instead, the owner of Beach Solar Laundromat in The Beach neighbourhood says he responded by setting up a donation rack outside the store for people to either give or receive warm winter clothing.
"I've had a tremendous response," said Winch, who estimates 40 to 50 coats have passed through the rack in the six days since it's been installed.
The idea came when a patron approached him late on Nov. 16, saying two sweaters were missing from the dryer she had been using. CBC Toronto viewed security camera footage that showed another woman entering the facility, taking the two sweaters from the dryer while the patron wasn't looking, putting them in her bag and immediately leaving.
Winch said when he confronted her outside the laundromat a few days later, she responded by saying she was extremely cold, claiming she was also homeless and refusing to return the stolen property.
Alex Winch says he's seen roughly 40 or 50 coats given and taken by people in need since he set up the donation rack six days ago. (Patrick Swadden/CBC)
Struck by how the incident underscored the homelessness crisis in Toronto, Winch decided not to report it and instead put a rack outside the adjacent dry cleaner he also owns called Monk's Fine Fabric Care. He says after starting the rack with one of his own coats, it quickly filled up with others for the taking.
"If somebody is cold at 2:00 in the morning, they can get a coat," said Winch. "They're not stealing — they're receiving a donation."
Many non-profits in Toronto say the demand for coats and other warm winter clothing has spiked in recent years as more and more people turn to charities for assistance.
Across the nation, 1 in 5 Canadians are currently using charitable services to meet essential needs such as food and shelter, according to Nicole Danesi, senior manager of public relations at CanadaHelps, an online platform for charitable donations and fundraising.
According to the organization, almost a quarter of Canadians will rely on charitable services within the next six months.
"These numbers are staggering and quite concerning," said Danesi.
Charities can't keep up with demand
That means requests for winter clothing often outpace supply offered by local charities like Haven on the Queensway, which provides food, clothing and other resources to people experiencing poverty.
"It's been a little bit of a a struggle to try to keep up with that increased demand," said Aretha Khaloo, Haven on the Queensway's director of operations.
She says they've noticed an influx of refugees and asylum seekers in the store who often do not have the proper winter attire.
"Just in the last month, we went from getting an average of 30 new people into over 130 people coming in asking for warm clothing," said Khaloo.
Haven on the Queensway offers seasonal clothing free of charge for individuals and families going through a crisis, but director of operations Aretha Khaloo says the charity is struggling to keep up with demand. (Submitted by Aretha Khaloo)
Other charities like Fred Victor, which operates shelters and transitional housing and provides food programs, are also feeling the pinch.
"It's every single shelter, every single drop-in in the city," says Marie MacCormack, vice-president of philanthropy and communications at Fred Victor, which serves around 3,000 people a day.
Community donations essential for charities
MacCormack says very few charities helping people experiencing homelessness and poverty have the capacity to pick up clothing, making donations from community members essential.
"There's nothing left over at the end of the day for us to be buying clothing."
MacCormack adds that Giving Tuesday, an annual global movement that aims to celebrate charitable acts, is a perfect opportunity for people to help those in need. The event falls this year on Nov. 28, and she suggests giving to a charity where donations will be matched or doubled by corporations or other foundations.
But Winch says there are other ways to give and is hoping his idea sparks in other neighbourhoods. He says he posted the idea in a Leslieville-based Facebook community group, which immediately received hundreds of likes and comments.
"There are neighbourhoods across the city that are that generous, that are that caring," said Winch.
"This is just a band-aid, but if this same band-aid could be replicated in little storefront alcoves in each neighbourhood across the city … that's a bigger band-aid."