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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Violent Crime, Not Homeless – Real Problem in Toronto Chinatown

Man faces 12 charges – Firearm seized Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue Chinatown

On Monday, August 18, 2008, at 7:40 p.m., 14 Division Community Response officers were on patrol in the Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue area.

It is alleged that the accused was in possession of a loaded firearm, the accused fled on foot, the accused was arrested and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized. Qoheleth Chong, 19, of Toronto, has been charged with – Careless use of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited weapon knowing its possession is unauthorized, Unauthorized possession of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited firearm with ammunition, Possession of prohibited weapon obtained by the commission of an offence, Carry concealed weapon, Possession prohibited weapon, Carry concealed weapon, prohibited device or prohibited ammunition, Possession of ammunition contrary to prohibition order, Possession of firearm contrary to prohibition order, Fail to comply recognizance, Fail to Comply with Probation.

He is scheduled to appear in court at Old City Hall, on Tuesday, August 26, 2008, room 101, at 10 a.m. Contact: Constable Tony Vella, Public Information, for Detective Izzy Bernardo, 14 Division 416-808-1400 [end of bulletin]

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

While the Chinatown BIA and Intelligarde are rousting harmless homeless panhandlers, the police are right there in the neighbourhood in broad daylight and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized from a youth nineteen years of age. He probably started out young with the rest of the growing gangs of neighbourhood teens who have plagued the Chinatown business district with destructive tagging or grafitti. Do you need to ask who is responsible for increased crime and drugs in the area?  This is not an isolated incident and highlights why the Toronto Police see homelessness and panhandlers as lower priority issues.

Visit the Missionlog Commentary page for updates. Click the Commentary tab at the top of the page or click here now.

Message From Mayor to Private Security Firms Harassing the Homeless in Toronto: Let the City Handle It

View north of Dundas on Spadina Chinatown.

View north of Dundas on Spadina Chinatown.

Toronto Sun, Aug.21, 2008 – Let city handle it, Mayor David Miller says:

“Chinatown shopkeepers should let the city do its job — but with social workers not police, Mayor David Miller said yesterday. Miller said he didn’t support the hiring of a private security firm to patrol the streets of the busy Spadina Ave.-area to remove the homeless. — [end of excerpt]

The City of Toronto and the Spadina Chinatown Business association have a much more serious problem than homelessness.  It is a serious oversight on their part to blame crime in the area on the homeless – Chairman Stephen Chan blames the homeless for car thefts and other crime without any arrests data to uphold the claim. He need look no further than the youth gangs in his own neighbourhood – they are not homeless and they are not merely a nuisance on the streets. They are dangerous armed criminals. Refer to the Toronto Police Bulletin below and my Project417 update and commentarty following –

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With all this news recently regarding the private policing by security firm Intelligarde, hired by the Spadina Chinatown BIA to move homeless off the streets, I thought it was important to highlight the real crime issues faced by Chinatown. The following is a Toronto Police Community Bulletin issued August 18th, the same timeframe as when the Sun is reporting on homeless harrassment:

Man faces 12 charges – Firearm seized Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue area

On Monday, August 18, 2008, at 7:40 p.m., 14 Division Community Response officers were on patrol in the Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue area.

It is alleged that the accused was in possession of a loaded firearm, the accused fled on foot, the accused was arrested and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized. Qoheleth Chong, 19, of Toronto, has been charged with – Careless use of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited weapon knowing its possession is unauthorized, Unauthorized possession of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited firearm with ammunition, Possession of prohibited weapon obtained by the commission of an offence, Carry concealed weapon, Possession prohibited weapon, Carry concealed weapon, prohibited device or prohibited ammunition, Possession of ammunition contrary to prohibition order, Possession of firearm contrary to prohibition order, Fail to comply recognizance, Fail to Comply with Probation.

He is scheduled to appear in court at Old City Hall, on Tuesday, August 26, 2008, room 101, at 10 a.m. Contact: Constable Tony Vella, Public Information, for Detective Izzy Bernardo, 14 Division 416-808-1400 [end of bulletin]

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

While the Chinatown BIA and Intelligarde are rousting harmless homeless panhandlers, the police are right there in the neighbourhood in broad daylight and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized from a youth nineteen years of age. He probably started out young with the rest of the growing gangs of neighbourhood teens who have plagued the Chinatown business district with destructive tagging or grafitti. Do you need to ask who is responsible for increased crime and drugs in the area?  This is not an isolated incident and highlights why the Toronto Police see homelessness and panhandlers as lower priority issues.

What would happen should the unarmed Intelligarde patrols come upon one of the armed Chinatown area criminals during a break-in, drug deal or other crime? The accused Qoheleth Chong is not homeless, but a resident of the same Chinatown neighbourhood.  And yet the business owners have been duped by their representatives that street homelessness is the top issue they are facing worthy of thousands of dollars of private policing.  The presence of those same surly security guards wil actually have a negative impact on their business as the public will react to confrontations between normally unobtrusive panhandlers and the guards who roust them. It’s an accident waiting to happen. The public or perhaps even tourists are bound to get caught up in an altercation sooner or later. Even the presence of those security guards on public city sidewalks is an affront to our freedoms and actually endangers our safe enjoyment of public property. The sidewalks in front of the Chinatown businesses are not private property but public. If they have a concern about the homeless blocking access to their doors, or being drunk and disorderly in public (a small minority),  then they need only call police who will respond. Perhaps they should stop selling Chinese cooking wine at five bottles for five bucks.

If the Chinatown business community was truly concerned about the sidewalks being blocked by the homeless, a far worse problem is the huge number of illegal, unlicenced street vendors (see my photo at the top) who block anywhere from a third to a half of public sidewalks, as well as the huge mountains of garbage and empty boxes from the sidewalk Chinatown markets that are to be at curbside but turn walking the public thoroughfare into threading the eye of the needle. This is all about appearances – Chairman Stephen Chan is concerned the homeless are “unkempt”, pehaps he could organize clothing bank donations from the vendors who block the sidewalk with clothing racks of T-shirts at a half dozen for $7.99 . According to the Sun news reports there were only 12 homeless rousted by security – they could have been clothed for less than twenty bucks.  Community outreach would be much more effective than community policing. The city and the Chinatown business community need to open their eyes to the real problems facing the area – why are your youth armed with automatic 9mm weapons? and where are the weapons coming from? – and stop blaming their problems on helpless homeless people living in crisis.

The Intelligarde Security philosophy towards community policing and some revealing in person insight into how that firm’s president views the public is the subject of another article on my Commentary page. Click on the tab at the top of the page or here to read more about Intelligarde President Ross McLeod.

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