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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Panhandlers Feeling Effects Of Staggering Economy

A great article and video of many of our homeless friends panhandling and the impact of the current downward economic trend. From that article, they interviewed and photographed our good friend Terry, busking on Queen:

Source: citynews.ca – “Huddled in an abandoned store front stoop on Queen West, Terry is playing the guitar with gusto when I approach him.  He isn’t a panhandler, he stresses, and never begs for money.  But he does rely on the generosity of others to get by.  He’s been busking for 12 years and admits he’s noticed a slow down lately.

“It affects everybody, from the guy who’s making the most money to the guy who’s making the least money.  It’s like a trickle down type thing.  If they’re not making as much money they’re not dropping as much money.  People are depressed, angry, you can literally see it, like when it went downhill with the U.S. stocks, you could literally see it.  People look tired, people look fed up, worried, concerned.

Terry and friend...

“There’s no security anymore.  Those people work really hard and they lose it all.  They invest in stocks and think that it’s going to be good, and it ends up falling through.” [end of excerpt]

I also have a great video of Terry and friends busking in the same spot two summers ago. Click here to see the YouTube video. I used to busk with them myself, and jam at the Knox Out-of-the-Cold youth dinner too – The Knox program (founded by Joe at Project417) starts up again next Tuesday to run through the winter: a great home-cooked hot meal, foodbank, clothing, haircuts and dye-jobs, open mic and more – all for street youth 25 (ish) and under. And don’t forget our Wednesday nite Community Dinner, free to all, over at Bloor Lansdowne. If panhandling takes are down, I expect we’ll see more of our friends at those meals. I know we’re not seeing too much of a decrease in our street friends when we go out distribute bag lunches. We have a team out tonite taking sixty meals and I’ll post an update.

There’s quite a few of us here at Project417 who are involved as volunteers in trying to get an alternative to the current “street” newspapers our homeless friends can sell. It should improve the take, and provide a dignified alternative to panhandling. Hopefully, and here’s the tough part, it will be a real community effort, with top down involvement from our street friends. Come back and check out the Mission Log for updates.
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Time to Volunteer – Out of the Cold

Knox Out of the Cold

Autumn is here again, although you wouldn’t know from the sunny, balmy weather we’ve been having. This is definitely a bonus for the homeless street population here in Toronto. Here at Project417 we are not looking forward to the wet, cold and blustery weather that is bound to be coming soon. It makes life difficult for the street homeless we work with – stuck outside all day, rain drizzling down, soaking their sleeping bags and blankets, making their outdoor beds sodden and chilled, bringing morning dews and soon frost. Quite a few of the homeless and street involved youth that we know are making a living on the streets busking, a time honored musical tradition and one that offers self-esteem and an escape from the hazards of panhandling or squeegee. With the advent of cold weather, most busking is severely limited, especially for guitar players or other instruments affected by the cold or requiring warm hands.

There is a great fall and winter program to look forward to though: The Knox Out of the Cold Dinner and Foodbank for Street Youth starts up again every Tuesday from November 6th, 2007. Now in its 11th year, the Knox Out of the Cold is a favorite amongst the street youth who attend. Last year we averaged over seventy youth, roughly between the ages of 16 to 25, serving them hot, nutritious homemade dinners and offering access to a foodbank generously stocked with fresh food, such as milk and cheese, many frozen foods and dinners, as well as some fresh produce from Second Harvest and a good selection of standard foodbank non-persihables.

This independant Out of the Cold program (it’s supported entirely by Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto) was started more than ten years ago as a cooperative partnership between First Nations Gospel Church and a caring group of Knox members who wanted to reach the growing numbers of homeless street youth ( In Toronto, a good estimate suggests there are at least 10,000 different youth who are homeless at one point on any given year – and anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 on a given night. ;Source – cbc.ca) The First Nations Gospel Church which evolved into our organization – Project417 – Ekklesia Inner City Ministries – was founded by Joe Elkerton, our current Executive Director. It has always been at the forefront of outreach to the most as risk portion of the homeless – those who are absolutely without shelter, sleeping on the streets. Back in the 90’s, Rev.Elkerton and his teams of volunteers, who visited the streets delivering bag lunches on sandwich runs, noticed that many homeless street youth were not visiting the various overnight emergency shelters which serve the general homeless population. They were feeling out of place and harassed by the older, adult population, (most are escaping some form of abuse at the hands of adults) and couldn’t find referral or counselling programs which dealth with the issues unique to youth. So, seeking to meet their needs, and with the blessing of the Knox Session, the Knox Out of the Cold was implemented. Joe Elkerton and his team provided the expertise in running a shelter and serving the homeless and Knox provided an awesome facility and ready group of volunteers and administrators.

Knox Out of the Cold for Street Youth has gone through many changes over the last decade, continuously adapting to the changing needs of homeless and at risk street youth. At the beginning, we followed the Out of the Cold model first championed by Sister Susan and the founders of Out of the Cold. In addition to providing hot meals, the church gymnasium became an overnight shelter with dozens of youth finding a warm place to sleep and a hot breakfast in the morning. Beginning in 2006, the overnight portion of the program was cancelled, due in part to the large number of youth who had found housing through the efforts of the Streets to Homes initiative and caring counsellors from NaMeRes (Native Men’s Residence). For several years the program ran two nights a week thanks to the volunteer efforts of the Royal Bank of Canada RBC, who ran the program Wednesday nights as well as the churches’ own Tuesdays.

The program this year guarantees to continue it’s hit status with the youth who attend. Doors open at 6:30 pm and a home cooked meal is usually served by 7 pm. Teams of volunteers takes turns commandeering the well equipped church kitchen and producing great meals – and not just soup kitchen staples like spaghetti or stew. Menus often include Roast Beef and all the trimmings, or adventurous nights like homemade pizza. All meals come with a fresh salad, vegetables, potatoes or pasta and bread. There is fruit juice and chocolate milk on every table and most meals include a vegetarian alternative. There are also choice os yummy desserts and trays of cookies and munchies homemade by the “church ladies”. The meals are served to the youth at table by volunteers – we don’t make them line up meal program style like some shelters – and once they are all served the volunteers are encouraged to join them at the tables, which can make for some interesting discussion topics.

Early on in the program’s history, Knox Church members assumed all responsibility for the program’s operation under the guidance of Vicki and Bill Wood. Project417 – Ekklesia stays on just to volunteer, lend a hand with coordination and enjoy the community. Vicki and Bill and countless other volunteers over the years have added programs which make the Knox Out of the Cold unique. The church has a bowling alley – 3 lanes! – in the basement and volunteers are always needed to help set the pins and return balls. Years ago Bill started “Hair Nite”, and dyes the youth’s hair every technicolor choice imaginable. Along with volunteer barbers and hairdressers, this is one activity the youth line up for. Starting as a test in the summer of 2005, the Knox Foodbank for Street Youth now runs every Tuesday in conjunction with the Out of the Cold. A community public health nurse is on premises all evening. There are often crafts and there’s a table with video games on an aging Nintendo. (Wii or xBox donations anyone?)

Every other week Bill Wood and a group of helpers host an open mic night in the gym for the youth to entertain us all with their amazing musical talent. Bill, a veteran musician who just released his latest CD “Take It” always performs his latest tunes and, in human jukebox style, responds to almost any request. We’re constantly surprised by the awesome talent of the youth, especially Meg, Lucian Thomas or Spewkie and friends of the Freckled Arm and the Kruntry Revolution. It’s a warm haven for our friends like Terry, Petboy and Gomer once busking season is over.

So come on out and join the volunteers! Visit the Knox Presbyterian website at knoxtoronto.org for contact info or visit the volunteer pages of Project417.com

Entrance Out of the Cold at Knox Spadina

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