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

DSC_1117

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.

DSC_1122

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.

knox1

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.

DSC_1111

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.

DSC_1140

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.

DSC_1157

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!

DSC_1114

DSC_1185

DSC_1134

Me and my brother, James

DSC_1165

knox2

::

::

Advertisements

Squeegee and Panhandling

No Violence!

Well I was shocked yesterday when I heard about an alleged assault of a driver in a convertible by a squeegee kid.  I remember the news reporting the details as “the squeegee kid offered to clean the drivers car windows and the driver said No and an argument ensued. The youth climbed into the passenger side of the car and proceeded to assault the driver. Police are investigating”.  So the first thing that comes to my mind is that there should be ZERO TOLERANCE  for any type of violence out on the streets, and no excuses for street people assaulting anyone regardless of antagonism, with the exception of self-defence.  The second is – These are my people, some are my friends, I know most of them by sight and many by name. What are we going to do? It’s like they’re committing hari-kari.

Obviously this is a very large issue and I’m going to be commenting on it extensively over the next few days.  Councillor Casey Ootes is renewing his call for a complete ban on panhandling in Toronto. Do you agree or disagree? Here’s some insight ito the news reports:  Quote”…the driver said no and an argument ensued…” .  Common sense tells us that the driver said much more than “no”,  he probably made good use of the f**k word and may have followed it up with the “get-a-job” epithet or some other pithy and , only to him, witty remark designed to hurt.  He may even have challenged the youth – thats for the police investigation to decide. I won’t say you get what you deserve, because there is no excuse for violence, but who is the first to have escalated the violence?, the driver or the squeegee kid? Is violence and assault only physical? No, of course not. Look into the issues surrounding violence against women and the first symptons are always “verbal abuse”-  Using violent hurtful language is a form of assault. And I can tell you from experience that these street youth face that violence hundreds of times a day.

Panhandling also comes under attack again, with the reminder that a “gang of panhandlers” murdered an innocent visitor to the city just last month. I’ll discuss this more in the next post. Just suffice it to say, the attackers were NOT a “gang” of panhandlers, they may not have even been from Toronto and just in town to visit, party and cause trouble…

%d bloggers like this: