Cold ends – Out of the Cold Program Over for Another Season

Success stories at the Knox Out of the Cold Youth Dinner and Foodbank, for homless street youth since 1996. Started by Rev Joe Elkerton of Ekklesia Inner City Ministries – Project417 and Knox Presbyterian. Program coordinator Vicki Wood and volunteer coordinator Andy Coats.

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Housing Not War Campaign Clouds Issue

There is a recent trend in homelessness advocacy to target the anti-war sentiments to gain support for the homeless. The TDRC ( Toronto Disaster Relief Committee) among other public advocates have launched a campaign called ” Housing not War”. The basis of the campaign is to stop spending billions on Canada’s war against terrorism in Afghanistan so that the money may be spent for humanitarian needs for housing and other homelessnss initiatives here at home. Even normally well respected advocates like Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse, have joined the campaign and are publishing many anti-war statistics in an effort to heighten public awareness about the need for anti-poverty housing funds. Anti-war rallies and demonstrations are being held under the banner “Housing not War”.

After much reflection, I’d have to say they are on the wrong track. To specifically target Canadian government expenditures on the Afghan war in counterpoint to the issus of homelessness and poverty is short-sighted. It’s marketing grandstanding at it’s worst (or best). Yes, it attracts attention to a much ignored subject here in Canada – the plight of the homeless and under-housed. It garners media attention and raises public awareness, but at a cost. By specifically claiming that homelessness would not exist but for the cost of the war overseas, “Housing not War” is clouding the real issues about homelessness and poverty in Canada. Furthermore, by aligning with dedicated anti-war organizations, the effectiveness of homeless advocacy is diverted.

I have to say that I am opposed to the Afghan conflict and have been since the outset. No war makes sense – it is all morally wrong. I want the troops home now, not 2010 or 2011. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, it’s depressing to see how little we have learned. For those who think the war is defensive, a war on terrorism, or a reasonable response to terrorist attacks, remember that the West (including Canada) is responsible for the Mid-east conflicts through their support of British, French and even American colonialism in the region for more than a hundred years. Check the maps from the Paris 1919 peace talks to see how they carved up the entire Third world and Middle East regions to see the true roots of conflict. Until the West admits their error and commits to reparations for decades of big corporate exploitation, they will continue to breed terrorists. The current conflict guarantees a supply of anti-west sentiments for a century to come. Canada’s traditional role as peacekeeper is permanently damaged. Stop the war now – just don’t tie it in to the suffering of the homeless here at home.

Homelessness and poverty in Canada have existed throughout our history as a country – even in peacetime – it’s current state is a disaster and shameful to all. There is no direct fiscal connection between the Defense Department budget and federal funding of anti-poverty initiatives. There is no lack of general government revenue that could be directed towards helping solve homelessness. To claim otherwise is to ignore the extent of the the problem of poverty in Canada. What is missing is the public will to effect change. Hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds earmarked for housing have not been spent, and are mired in red tape and federal-provincial bickering. Countless other billions are wasted at all government levels through mismanagement and the plain greed of society at large at the expense of the poor.

You could just as easily target many other Federal govrnment expenditures as the Defence budget, or cost of Afganistan. How about the National Gun Registry? – more than a billion dollars to track gun ownership by law abiding Canadians? Less than 2% of registered weapons are involved in a crime.

What the crisis is, is lack of prioritization when it comes to poverty and homelessness. Let’s look at some other government expenditures:

  • Highways and Infrastructure spending
  • Post-secondary Education
  • Arctic Sovereignty
  • CRTC, public broadcasting and the CBC
  • Corporate tax incentives & grants

Feel free to add to the list if you can think of others not as important as children going hungry, a street youth mortality rate 8.5 times greater than yours, the mentally challenged sleeping on sidewalks, seniors and physically disabled living below the poverty line.

Finally, take a look in the mirror – we are products of the consumer era. Canadians’ personal credit card debt is billions and billions. And we take for granted that our “discretionary” spending has skyrocketed in the last fifty years. What we call necessities, like cell phones, iPods, Blackberries and SUVs, are merely disguised luxuries.  Before you call on the defense Department to divert funds from Afghanistan, try diverting more of your own to help the homeless and the helpless.

Sandwich Run in the Big Smoke

The following is a short essay written by a recent volunteer on a Project417 sandwich run to the homeless in Toronto. It is insightful and genuine, thank-you Michael!

SANDWICH RUN IN THE BIG SMOKE

The outing begins in the late afternoon at our church where the bag lunches are made and packed. The mood is festive and friendly although there is an undercurrent of uncertainty about the experience we are about to have. We move to the sanctuary for a briefing of how the night will unfold and a moment of prayer. Then we split into carpools and head for the Big Smoke.

7:15 finds the twenty-two of us behind a mission at Harbord and Spadina shuffling in the -10 degree cold to keep warm. One of the trip leaders gives a short talk about what we are about to see, the root causes, the do’s and don’ts.

We learn that many of the homeless people in Toronto are not from the city. They migrate there from surrounding municipalities – Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Barrie – believing that there is more for them in the downtown core.

We learn that some arrive here not by choice. Bused in from the affluent Peel Region where only 200 shelter beds exist in an area that supports a population of one million plus. Bused in and dropped off at a shelter. But there is no bus to take them back the next day. Welcome to the streets of Toronto. I wonder…

What kind of social safety net operates on the “out of sight, out of mind” principle?

The leader warns us that we might encounter some “NIMBYs” who will tell us we can’t give out food in their neighbourhood. We learn that NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard”. They believe that giving food to people living on the streets enables and encourages them to be homeless. I wonder…

What kind of willful ignorance does it take to believe that anyone would actually choose to be homeless?

We learn that the most an adult can get on social assistance in Toronto is $530 a month. The cheapest rooming house accommodation costs $400 a month. Some of these places are so bad it is preferable to live on the street. One of our group comments on the millions or billions of dollars spent to fight the war in Afghanistan and speculates on how many people could be fed with that money. I wonder…

What kind of value system operates on the basis that it makes more sense to spend money to kill people than to feed them?

We split into two groups and set out on our walk. There are fewer homeless people about tonight than usual because social assistance cheques came out this week enabling some to pay for shelter for a few days.

Our group leader stops in front of a fast food outlet and informs us it is known as “Hooker Harveys” because working girls often hang out in front while their pimps sit inside watching. There are no working girls there tonight. But still I wonder…

What becomes of hope when your life is no longer in your control?

The first homeless person we encounter is a man on a street corner holding what appears at first to be a bottle of water. He is wearing shorts overtop of jeans and a light jacket hanging open. Our leader engages him in conversation. He is good natured in a child-like way but suddenly backs away a few steps. We think he is going to leave but he points out that a police car has just pulled up to the corner. He says he has been drinking all day. He is, I think, concerned that the police will pick him up as a drunk.

He gladly accepts a bag lunch from us and thanks us genuinely. One of our group suggests he should pull up the hood on his jacket and tie the draw cord to keep out the wind. He explains that, if he were to get into a fight, the other person could grab the cord and use it to restrain him while he punches him in the head. I wonder…

What kind of life lessons does it take to teach you that protecting yourself from violence is more important than warmth on a cold night?

In a park we encounter a single man and a couple who gratefully accept the bag lunches we offer. A man on a bicycle approaches on the path behind us. We part to let him through but he stops when he reaches us and we realize he too is homeless. He smiles and says he has been following us for some time. He knows why we are out and is gracious in accepting the bag lunch. I wonder…

What kind of wounded pride does it take to follow a group for blocks working up the courage to approach them for something you know they have to offer but you can’t bring yourself to ask for?

We move along to Allan Gardens Park which is also unusually quiet. Our leader spots a man in the shadows a hundred feet away. She asks three members of the group to go to him and offer the bag lunch. They return with the news that he gratefully accepted the lunch and is surprised that there are not more people in the park tonight. I wonder…

What depth of loneliness does it take to drive you to the shadows of a frozen park in -10 degree weather hoping to find another homeless soul to converse with for awhile?

At an intersection our group leader suggests that we split in two and walk both sides of the street. On our side we encounter another homeless man who gratefully accepts the bag lunch and makes it a point to thank each one of us and shake our hands. As we walk on our leader tells us that the corner we just passed is known as “Crack Central” because Crack dealers regularly hang out near the working pay phone. I wonder…

What kind of soulless person makes their living feeding the slow death of homeless people who have to choose between food and drugs – when they have money at all?

Ahead of us we see a homeless person who clearly has a mental condition. He is running down the sidewalk shouting angrily at an imaginary person in the street. Our group leader talks a bag lunch from our sack and advises us to walk past the man without engaging him. She hangs back and offers him the bag lunch as he passes. But he does not notice her because he is running to accost a man in a van that is turning the corner. I wonder…

What kind of horror must it be to be lost in the caverns of your own faltering mind with no one who is close enough to you to reach through the darkness and pull you back?

Our outing ends at a Tim Hortons where we gladly warm ourselves with coffee, muffins and donuts. We gather across the street for a debrief. Our group leader asks us what the one thing is that all of these homeless people have in common. We offer the obvious things but arrive at the deeper truth. What they all lack is love and community. They are the forgotten ones who left (or lost) “home” because there was no love there. Now they wander the streets in search of it.

My thoughts return to the solitary man in the shadows in Allan Gardens. I imagine that the warmth of food in his stomach is welcome. The warmth of a roof over his head would be even more welcome. But I wonder…

On this cold March night, would he gladly give up both for the companionship of a single person to free him from the prison cell of his loneliness?

Springtime! get out and volunteer with Project417

Well it has been a looooong, cold and snowy winter here in Toronto, and the Knox Youth Dinner & Foodbank out-of-the-cold program has served hundeds of hot home-cooked meals. The program runs until the end of April so there still plenty of time to come on out and volunteer.

About 2 months ago we had an opportunity to start another meal program in partnership with Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship, a small but vibrant inner city church in the west end of Toronto. It is growing every week and so far we are feeding about sixty hungry people, guests and volunteers combined. It is a very welcoming and friendly atmosphere, added to by the live musical performances every week. This are, Bloor Lansdowne has much potential, but also many challenges, especially for the many residents who still live in poverty trying to survive on OW, and even the many families best described as the “working poor”.

Stay tuned to the blof here for more updates. For volunteer info visit project417.com

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