Knox Dinner and Food Bank for Homeless Street Youth

The Roots of the Knox Youth Dinner & Food Bank

Formerly:  Knox Toronto – First Nations Gospel Assembly – Out of the Cold Program

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Many people ask me just what types of programs and services, other than our nightly street sandwich runs to the homeless, that Project417  operates in Toronto. One of the most amazing programs in the city is the Knox Youth Dinner & Foodbank that runs every winter from November to April on Tuesday nights.  The Knox program was a joint grassroots effort of our director Joe Elkerton and a group of willing Knox volunteers headed by Vicki and Bill Wood.  The program is entirely operated by Knox now – and that is Project417’s vision,  to mobilize community groups to establish sustainable services for the homeless. Personally, I’ve helped with the program for over six years and more than half a dozen Project417 team leaders show up every week to help the other volunteers.

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It’s where I have made friends with dozens of Toronto street youth like the girl named ‘R’. In 2008 I was invited to join a “street family”.  This is a family unit (as opposed to gangs) formed by homeless and underhoused kids out on the streets to replace their traditional families – to care for each other, watch each other’s backs, advocate for family members, share shelter, food, information and income.  This “family” was the largest of its kind in Canada.  My friends Mick and Ozz nominated me at a family meeting and I was the first to be unanimously voted in. They are my people, my little brothers and sisters – I love every one of them. Many are housed now, working, finishing high school, studying at university and raising their own families. It all started out on the streets of Toronto, and Tuesday nights at Knox.

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History:

On December 9, 1997, the congregation of Knox church, in conjunction with First Nations’ Gospel Assembly, opened its doors for the first time to the homeless and poor street youth in Toronto, following the Out of the Cold program model.  The idea for the program came from  Joe Elkerton of  First Nations’ Gospel Assembly – a church program of Ekklesia Inner City Ministries – Project417 (for native peoples).  Joe approached us at Knox after having to close a program at another downtown church after less than a full season.  Joe was familiar with the Out of the Cold (OOTC) philosophy and program format, and with a long-time ministry to homeless street youth and First Nations aboriginals,  felt there was a need for a similar program targeting street youth specifically.  The youth tend to feel uncomfortable at adult shelters.  At the same time,  a small group of us at Knox were looking at ways our church could expand its work in its own community.

We started as a pilot program in two ways:  Knox Toronto Session approved a one-year pilot, and  our program was submitted as a new church member of  Out of the Cold for one year. Almost immediately upon starting this program, we learned that a youth program is not the same as an adult Out of the Cold program.knox3

For one thing, we couldn’t expect to simply open our doors and wait for street kids to come to us. We had to build some trust first. So for the first year we would have volunteers with Project417 out in a van handing out sandwiches and inviting kids to come to Knox. The need for such a place soon became apparent,  as just about everyone who came once became a regular, and told their friends. On our first night we fed 10 youth and six slept the night. By that February, we were averaging 35 guests per night. (Now we serve more than one hundred youth).

We continued the Project417 van runs to deliver food to people outside and to youth who still didn’t want to come inside for the night. It gave us a presence on the street and also helped show our volunteers where our guests come from, which really helped them to relate to the kids.

Another difference: we had planned to serve an early evening meal at a set time, and then move on to quiet activities and then sleeping time, But we soon found that our young guests were not always prepared to come in for the night right at our opening time. Our vision of a big family-style sit down meal for everyone had to be re-arranged a little. Now we serve dinner at 6:30 for all guests and volunteers who are there, but kids trickle in throughout the night, and are welcome to eat whenever they are ready.

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Activities we offer at Knox include:  basketball, games, bowling (we need volunteers to help set the pins in our two-lane bowling alley), movies, hair colouring and haircuts, bingo, chess, lots of home made desserts, popcorn and conversation. Recent additions include a couple of donated guitars that the kids like to use, and we have initiated bi-weekly music nights, where a couple of volunteers bring in an amp and mics and guitars and drums and welcome any of the kids to join in an impromptu concert. We also have a volunteer set up a sewing table with sewing machine, repairing clothing and teaching anyone who wants to learn.  Often we have arts and crafts, which is quite popular. If we have the extra hands, we’ll offer foot baths/massages. We have a community nurse on duty. Our volunteers range in ages from 14 to 82. More than half have been volunteering for more than five years.

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For several years, employees from the Royal Bank Financial Group made it possible for us to extend the Knox program to two nights. That partnership worked very well and we are so thankful for their participation, but RBC downsizing and resultant loss of volunteers caused that extra evening program to be cancelled.  If any group is interested in starting a similar program, the space is available and we would be happy to offer any help possible!

Quite a few of the regulars just like to talk to whoever will listen. We feel the most valuable thing we offer is a safe place where they can be themselves for the night, ask for whatever they want and share their stories (true or not!). As of three years ago, many of the youth began to get housed through the Streets2Homes program and the number of youth staying overnight grew less.  As a result, the Out-of-the-Cold “overnight” portion was shut down until the need increased.

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The program has evolved for those youth – many with no income or low income and sharing “under-housed” conditions – into the current Knox Youth Dinner and weekly Foodbank:

Everyone is fed a hot, home-cooked meal (we serve restaurant style and volunteers are encouraged to join the youth at table to share a meal also) and given a bag of groceries. The new season opens November 3, 2009. We need your help to once again keep the shelves stocked. Please consider buying one extra item during your weekly shopping. Items needed include:

  • Any canned foods, fish, pasta, beans, vegetables, fruit
  • Peanut butter
  • Dry Pasta
  • Soups
  • Kraft Dinner
  • Coffee, tea
  • Toilet paper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Condiments: hot sauce, mustard, ketchup, relish
  • Cereals
  • Cookies, treats
  • Cleaning Products

While food is the most practical and effective help you can provide, we also accept donations of plastic and cloth shopping bags, clean plastic lidded containers and clean lidded jars. We also accept socks, underware, jeans, winter coats and boots.

More than 100 youth are served every week – Tuesday nights from 6:30 til 9pm.  Consider volunteering.

( The original version of this history, by program coordinator Vicki Wood, appeared on the website of Knox Church at http://www.knoxtoronto.org and the Missionlog’s GeoCities site. ) Enjoy the photos!

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Me and my brother, James

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Homeless in Mississauga

Where would you go?

I was challenged by an encounter with a homeless man on Saturday night in Mississauga. I work with the homeless in Toronto out on the street with Project417, but in the past, around 2004, had done outreach in Brampton and Mississauga. Lack of funding and general lack of awareness and sensitivity to the homelessness problem in Peel Region, lead to the cancellation of that program – sad but we had to go where people would support the work to help the homeless, that was Toronto.

On Saturday evening I was attending a Missions conference at Mississauga Chinese Baptist Church on Creekbank Road near the Dixie and 401 area. I’d had a small booth/table set up to show the programs Project417 operates in downtown Toronto to help our homeless friends. MCBC sponsors me for my work with Project417.

While taking a coffee break at the Tim Horton’s on Dixie Rd. at Aimco, primarily a commercial and industrial area, I saw a man coming out of the bushes at the edge of the parking lot displaying the tell-tale signs of being homeless and living outside. Out of all the cars in the parking lot, he seemed to be making a bee-line for mine – well, as straight as anyone with too much alcohol in them can walk anyway, that wavering but determined half-stride, half-stumble that still manages to cover a lot of ground. As he got closer, I could see the grimy and disheveled clothes he was wearing and, sure enough, he walked right up to my car and stood a couple feet away from me peering in the driver’s side window at me. He was sunburned and his right eye and the side of his face showed he’d recently been on the short end of a beating, bruised and bloody.  He had a stocky build and looked to be in his forties.

He was wavering on his feet as he stood there and I didn’t roll down the window immediately (it was open a few inches only) because I prefer to take stock of the people I encounter in my work who have obviously had too much to drink. Their behavior and responses are erratic and often violent. I suppose I took too long to say hello because his crooked grin disappeared and he shouted in the window, “Don’t you f**king speak?”. It was sad, because he had walked up to probably one of the only people in the parking lot who understood his ordeal and might have offered to help him out. Instead I just kept quiet and waited to see what he would ask next.

He started to unload on his quiet,captive audience – “Yeah, I’m drunk, and I’m living in the bush over there. I don’t care boy, but my friends are gone, cops got ’em … all in the can now”. I could tell he was from the east coast from his twang. He went on,  leaning closer, swaying and staggering,  ” I don’t give a f**k!,  I get by”. At this point I was really debating whether to get out of the car and have a chat or roll down the window, but he seemed too close to the edge, with that threat of physical violence just simmering beneath the surface.  I hate what alcohol does to people. It’s a plague on our whole society.

“I just need some f**kin’ money for smokes and coffee boy, what’s so bad about that?”, he shouted.  I slowly rolled down the window, while he started grinning again in anticipation, I guess, of receiving a couple of bucks. But I’m not in the habit of giving money to any of our homeless friends when they’re under the influence. I had in the back of my mind that I’d offer to go in a get him something at Timmie’s, but I wanted to chat a minute first to try and calm him down, before I got out of the car. I have to admit, I was angry too – I don’t respond well to surly drunks – but I recognize that in myself and find that just some non-threatening, quiet conversation can often defuse a situation, so I tried – ” I hear you man, I work downtown with guys out on the street, I usually have food to hand out, but I don’t have any right now… “.  He cut me off, waving his hands in the air, the smile gone again, yelling again, ” I don’t give a f**k about them. That doesn’t do me any f**kin good now does it? I just need some f**king money for smokes”, and before I could say anything else and voice my offer of help, he stumbled away in the direction of the Timmie’s drive-thru. I didn’t get out of the car and follow – he was trouble waiting to happen.

I drove back to the conference and couldn’t get him out of my mind for the rest of the night as I fielded questions from people who stopped by my table and asked me,  “How do people end up homeless?”.  By the end of the night I was convinced I don’t know the answer to that question – at least not the answer people expect to hear.

There some things I do know –

  • The City of Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million people has over three thousand emergency shelter beds
  • Peel Region with a population of over 1 million (Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon) has just over one hundred emergency shelter beds.
  • Mississauga, as part of the Peel shelter program used to have a location on Mavis with another hundred or so beds, but it closed last year due to budget restraints.
  • There are over a thousand homeless men, women and youth absolutely without shelter who live outside in Toronto. This is a very visible population.
  • There is reason to believe, based on population density alone, that there are hundreds of homeless living outside in Mississauga and Brampton. They are almost invisible. (With Project417, Joe Elkerton used to regularly visit the homeless living in the ravines in downtown Brampton).
  • Alcohol abuse does not cause homelessness – roughly 4% of the population in Peel Region can be classified as “alcoholics” – that’s over 40,000 people. Not all of them end up homeless

The questions that come to mind are –

What is the common denominator amongst the homeless population, that could be the root cause of their homelessness?

How prevalent is alcohol (and substance) abuse amongst the homeless, and what special measures, if any, need to be taken when dealing with them?

Why do cities like Mississauga and Brampton devote so much less space to housing the homeless compared to Toronto?

As an outreach worker – how do I respond when the person I want to help is agressive and drunk? If  I turn away, am I not part of the problem?

One of our friends, Bob Buckley, on his blog Pathway of Hope says –

Our society in it’s desire to help the brokenhearted, is part of the problem. We provide enough care to maintain a level of survival that I would call the living dead.

How do we become part of the solution?

||Continued – read What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?||

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Toronto Tragedy – Homeless Man Burns to Death Outside Bank ATM

Homelessness in Toronto has been called a disaster. Now it has progressed to the  point of tragic calamity. The Saturday Toronto Star (Jan 10 2009) reports that John Massie, 46, (known to us here by his street name – Classy), a homeless man who lived on the streets in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, has died of burns he suffered in a terrible misadventure.  It’s almost impossible to retain perspective when reading an article like this. Like many homeless in the dwontown Toronto core, Massie had been seeking a few minutes warm respite from the cold inside a bank ATM lobby at King and Yonge. Like many, he had been drinking, obviously high proof alcohol of some sort – police say he had spilled alcohol on himself, lit a smoke outside the bank and went up in flames. He died hours later in hospital from the burns.

Bench or Bed?

Bench or Bed?

Many volunteers with Project417 have walked the streets of the financial district with me handing out meals and warm clothing, especially the Richmond – King – Yonge – University block frequented by so many homeless. Years ago, Massie probably would have been camped out at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, where upwards of a hundred used to camp on benches and in cardboard huts – but council and the new Mayor David Miller forced most of them off saying the presence of so many homeless was bad for tourism. Those of you who walk with me see where most have gone: two blocks down into the financial district, shivering and living out a hopeless existence up against the glass and steel towers of banks and wealthy corporations.

What will it take to make this city, this country, wake up and see the travesty that is homelessness? The Star reports Massie was banned from most shelters, and even several public parks due to what they called bothersome, anti-social behaviour. Banned then, even from emergency shelter – banned from Out of the Cold programs – banished to walk the streets and sleep on cement, taking refuge in alcohol, even cheap mouthwash – abandoned by the very agencies and programs that exist to help him.  Security guards and shelter workers, many with Dixon Hall, the agency hired by the city to police grassroots Out of the Cold programs in churches,  regularly ban our homeless friends from shelters due to aggressive, violent behavior.  Some church Out of the Cold programs have opted out of having Dixon Hall staff on site,  instead footing the bill themselves for private safety and security staff so they can have more control over decisions such as banning or turning away the homeless. It’s a difficult line to walk – knowing that it may be a life or death decision, as it was for John Massie.

The report refers to “city restrictions that prevent outreach agencies [from] distributing survival supplies…like sleeping bags, hot food and blankets” as a possible contributing factor to the tragic death of John Massie.  These City of Toronto restrictions do exist and they are almost criminal. There is no bylaw cited by the city in imposing the restriction. Several years ago, all outreach agencies that rely on City of Toronto funding to run their programs received correspondence from the city requiring them to cease handing out food, warm clothing, and outdoor gear or face review of their funding – financial coercion, almost hostage taking in effect. I know most of them complied – you used to be able to call the city’s  StreetHelp line and have a sleeping bag or blanket delivered to a homeless person without shelter on the street – no more, but they will offer to transport the person to a shelter at some point in the next few hours – the same shelters that ban them and turn them away. ( A police “drunk tank” would be better than Massie’s fate outside). I know of more than one organization that no longer delivers hot meals on the street because of pressure from city staff.  There is no bylaw being enforced by the city in this – although several right-wing councillors had suggested anyone handing out food to the homeless needed a food vendors licence like the hotdog carts – ludicrous! They base their cruel coercion on the ivory tower philosophy that servicing homeless on the streets only “enables” their street lifestyle and inhibits them from receiving the help they need – help the City of Toronto has bet will come only from their now long-running “Streets to Homes” programs – whose street outreach workers travel with security guards by their side.

Project417 Help the HomelessProject417’s street outreach receives no city or government funding. An independent Christian charity, we will continue to share the elements of our liturgy – in the form of nutritious sandwich bag lunches prepared in churches across the GTA by thousands of volunteers every year. We will continue to walk the streets and be in community with our abandoned homeless friends like John Massie. And we will continue to grieve for each and every homeless man and woman that dies a needless death cold, hungry and alone. Rest in peace John…

To find out how you can walk with me in solidarity to the memory of John Massie, visit project417.com::


From canayjun.blogspot.com – P.M. Harper’s Address on TV

Prime Minister Harper’s Address to the Nation on TV

Normally devoted to issues of homelessness, humanitarian aid and disaster relief – This event is so important to Canada that I re-published it here from my Canada News Commentary blog at canayjun.blogspot.com

UPDATED 12:00 Noon, Dec 4 – Parliament suspended. Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean has approved Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to suspend Parliament, agreeing to put the government on hold until the end of January, the legal stall tactic used by the Prime Minister is called “proroguing parliament”.

UPDATED 9:16PM, Dec 3 – Click the title above to link to the video feed of Prime Minister Harper’s address from CTV.ca or from YouTube Canada right here:

For the full text of the speech including Dion’s response click here
Harper focused his attack on the coalition by referring to “backroom deals” struck with separatists, an obvious reference to the Bloc and leader Gilles Duceppe. He did not mention that he will meet with the Governor General tomorrow at 9:30 am, nor did he say he would seek to suspend parliament. He spoke only of ongoing meetings and deliberations in advance of a full budget he wants to release in January, 2009 [Can we afford to wait?]


In a little less than two hours, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will address Canadians on a television broadcast to be carried by the major TV networks.

It is the minority Conservative Party leader’s latest attempt to stave off the impending non-confidence vote and the proposed Liberal – NDP – Bloc Coalition Accord to defeat the minority government and assume majority control of Canada’s parliament. It is expected that Mr. Harper may announce that parliament will be “prorogued” or temporarily suspended until January, a date he has mentioned as when the Conservative Finance Minister would be ready to submit a more complete budget to the Canadian people.

As one who is calling the Coalition an undemocratic bid to take control of the government, Prime Minister Harper should take a page from his own book. What could be more detrimental to the democratic process of government in Canada than suspending the house? While parliamentary rules allow parliament to be prorogued after a minimum of one sitting, this would be a most blatant attempt at minority control of the will of the people of Canada.

Prime Minister Harper and his minority Conservative Party have never won a majority in Canada, having garnered only 37 percent of the popular vote. The Coalition represents 62 percent of Canadians and holds 163 seats in parliament versus 143 seats for the Conservatives. Stay tuned to the Canayjun’s Canada News Blog here for real time feeds of Harpers address.

The following links and previous post here on the blog will give you a good background.

Canada’s PM to address nation in crisis

Text of the Coalition Accord

I’m part of the 62 percent majority

Coalition for Change – the 62 Percent Majority Petition

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