Time to Volunteer – Out of the Cold

Knox Out of the Cold

Autumn is here again, although you wouldn’t know from the sunny, balmy weather we’ve been having. This is definitely a bonus for the homeless street population here in Toronto. Here at Project417 we are not looking forward to the wet, cold and blustery weather that is bound to be coming soon. It makes life difficult for the street homeless we work with – stuck outside all day, rain drizzling down, soaking their sleeping bags and blankets, making their outdoor beds sodden and chilled, bringing morning dews and soon frost. Quite a few of the homeless and street involved youth that we know are making a living on the streets busking, a time honored musical tradition and one that offers self-esteem and an escape from the hazards of panhandling or squeegee. With the advent of cold weather, most busking is severely limited, especially for guitar players or other instruments affected by the cold or requiring warm hands.

There is a great fall and winter program to look forward to though: The Knox Out of the Cold Dinner and Foodbank for Street Youth starts up again every Tuesday from November 6th, 2007. Now in its 11th year, the Knox Out of the Cold is a favorite amongst the street youth who attend. Last year we averaged over seventy youth, roughly between the ages of 16 to 25, serving them hot, nutritious homemade dinners and offering access to a foodbank generously stocked with fresh food, such as milk and cheese, many frozen foods and dinners, as well as some fresh produce from Second Harvest and a good selection of standard foodbank non-persihables.

This independant Out of the Cold program (it’s supported entirely by Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto) was started more than ten years ago as a cooperative partnership between First Nations Gospel Church and a caring group of Knox members who wanted to reach the growing numbers of homeless street youth ( In Toronto, a good estimate suggests there are at least 10,000 different youth who are homeless at one point on any given year – and anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 on a given night. ;Source – cbc.ca) The First Nations Gospel Church which evolved into our organization – Project417 – Ekklesia Inner City Ministries – was founded by Joe Elkerton, our current Executive Director. It has always been at the forefront of outreach to the most as risk portion of the homeless – those who are absolutely without shelter, sleeping on the streets. Back in the 90’s, Rev.Elkerton and his teams of volunteers, who visited the streets delivering bag lunches on sandwich runs, noticed that many homeless street youth were not visiting the various overnight emergency shelters which serve the general homeless population. They were feeling out of place and harassed by the older, adult population, (most are escaping some form of abuse at the hands of adults) and couldn’t find referral or counselling programs which dealth with the issues unique to youth. So, seeking to meet their needs, and with the blessing of the Knox Session, the Knox Out of the Cold was implemented. Joe Elkerton and his team provided the expertise in running a shelter and serving the homeless and Knox provided an awesome facility and ready group of volunteers and administrators.

Knox Out of the Cold for Street Youth has gone through many changes over the last decade, continuously adapting to the changing needs of homeless and at risk street youth. At the beginning, we followed the Out of the Cold model first championed by Sister Susan and the founders of Out of the Cold. In addition to providing hot meals, the church gymnasium became an overnight shelter with dozens of youth finding a warm place to sleep and a hot breakfast in the morning. Beginning in 2006, the overnight portion of the program was cancelled, due in part to the large number of youth who had found housing through the efforts of the Streets to Homes initiative and caring counsellors from NaMeRes (Native Men’s Residence). For several years the program ran two nights a week thanks to the volunteer efforts of the Royal Bank of Canada RBC, who ran the program Wednesday nights as well as the churches’ own Tuesdays.

The program this year guarantees to continue it’s hit status with the youth who attend. Doors open at 6:30 pm and a home cooked meal is usually served by 7 pm. Teams of volunteers takes turns commandeering the well equipped church kitchen and producing great meals – and not just soup kitchen staples like spaghetti or stew. Menus often include Roast Beef and all the trimmings, or adventurous nights like homemade pizza. All meals come with a fresh salad, vegetables, potatoes or pasta and bread. There is fruit juice and chocolate milk on every table and most meals include a vegetarian alternative. There are also choice os yummy desserts and trays of cookies and munchies homemade by the “church ladies”. The meals are served to the youth at table by volunteers – we don’t make them line up meal program style like some shelters – and once they are all served the volunteers are encouraged to join them at the tables, which can make for some interesting discussion topics.

Early on in the program’s history, Knox Church members assumed all responsibility for the program’s operation under the guidance of Vicki and Bill Wood. Project417 – Ekklesia stays on just to volunteer, lend a hand with coordination and enjoy the community. Vicki and Bill and countless other volunteers over the years have added programs which make the Knox Out of the Cold unique. The church has a bowling alley – 3 lanes! – in the basement and volunteers are always needed to help set the pins and return balls. Years ago Bill started “Hair Nite”, and dyes the youth’s hair every technicolor choice imaginable. Along with volunteer barbers and hairdressers, this is one activity the youth line up for. Starting as a test in the summer of 2005, the Knox Foodbank for Street Youth now runs every Tuesday in conjunction with the Out of the Cold. A community public health nurse is on premises all evening. There are often crafts and there’s a table with video games on an aging Nintendo. (Wii or xBox donations anyone?)

Every other week Bill Wood and a group of helpers host an open mic night in the gym for the youth to entertain us all with their amazing musical talent. Bill, a veteran musician who just released his latest CD “Take It” always performs his latest tunes and, in human jukebox style, responds to almost any request. We’re constantly surprised by the awesome talent of the youth, especially Meg, Lucian Thomas or Spewkie and friends of the Freckled Arm and the Kruntry Revolution. It’s a warm haven for our friends like Terry, Petboy and Gomer once busking season is over.

So come on out and join the volunteers! Visit the Knox Presbyterian website at knoxtoronto.org for contact info or visit the volunteer pages of Project417.com

Entrance Out of the Cold at Knox Spadina

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