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!


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?

2 Responses

  1. Great thoughts and questions here – one thing to be mindful of is that the concept of “choosing to be homeless” is a popular concept and is often inaccurate. In some cases, however, fear and other issues do result in individuals choosing homelessness rather than the unknown. I suppose they worry that a change could result in a worse situation. As hard as it is to believe that anyone could consciously “choose homelessness,” it’s not an idiotic assumption. It is -as Michael notes – NOT usually the case.
    -Robin from Respite

  2. Thanks Robin for your insight. Yes, the issue of choice is a slippery one, and we do talk to our groups about how some people may choose to be homeless.
    Granted, many are making a conscious decision to live without a home, but it is, as you say, often made only in counterpoint to other worse, unbearable conditions. This may represent a lack of choice – having no other alternative – rather than a free choice in the sense that many people understand it. If we look past the person, to the underlying cause of homelessness this maybe is a little clearer. Homelessness is not caused by some condition of the person ( the pathological view). Rather it is simply lack of access to housing – decent, healthy housing, that a person, regardless of personal circumstances, may choose to live in with dignity and in safety. Of course, I see by your blog on the Center for Respite Care that you’re deeply committed to this cause already. Thanks again for your feedback, from your friends in Toronto…

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