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 Helps – More volunteers help with sandwich runs to the homeless

Numbers of new volunteers increase at Project417 grassroots program for Toronto’s homeless – Thanks to Social Networking , Blogging and Search Engine Optimization:

2009 has been an exciting year here at Project417. We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of local Toronto volunteers willing to come out and help us on our sandwich runs to the homeless

A sandwich run is simply volunteers delivering nutritious bag lunches to homeless street people by walking well traveled routes in the downtown Toronto area where street involved people live. It is a relational outreach – a grassroots community building activity – in addition to delivering a meal to a hungry person, hopefully friendly conversations take place and bridges of trust strengthened.

Volunteers handing out bag lunches

Volunteers handing out bag lunches

Project417’s volunteer ranks have been swelled this year by caring people from all walks of life, from young teens to working adults – bank executives, health care professionals, singles clubs like Meet Market Adventures, whole families and even the cast of Toronto’s smash hit “We Will Rock You”. This past year we have hosted more than two thousand volunteers. Most of these new volunteers found out about us through search engines like Google. If you follow that Google link you’ll see that Project417’s sandwich runs are ranked first and three other results relate to our sandwich runs to the homeless.  Even Microsoft’s brand new offering Bing -which replaces their MSN Live search – ranks the MissionLog right here first and five or six other Project417 results including volunteer videos on Facebook.

I’ve worked hard over the last few years to improve our search results so that Project417 can more easily connect with volunteers, because, in the end, the beneficiaries are Toronto’s homeless and under-housed. We can’t afford professional SEO services or IT  Web 2.0 and 3.0 consulting, so all of this sucess has been home grown sweat equity. By far the biggest success has been WordPress.com – where you’re reading this blog right now – the MissionLog or missionlog.wordpress.com – WordPress is one of the most popular blogging platforms. It’s free and the blogs don’t carry any advertising. It is easy to use and set up your own blog, but has powerful options like tagging, gadgets, video and topical categories that really help  optimize your search engine ranking. There are a host of other online tools I’ve used to promote this blog and the Project417 official website and I’ve listed some of them at the end of this post.

Here at Project417, we’ve been facilitating sandwich runs for almost twenty years – our Director, Joe Elkerton first started going out to visit the homeless in the late eighties with a handful of college friends when reports of deaths among the homeless outside on the streets first surfaced in the news. This was before government sponsored programs like StreetHelp and Streets to Homes. The main focus of the program is not simply delivering food to hungry street people. The key factor is communication through conversations with our friends on the street. We don’t try to be experts or counselors, rather we try to help our volunteers – ordinary people – engage with the homeless. This is true community demonstrated by the caring act of delivering a meal.

Anyone can volunteer with us by invitation by emailing volunteer@project417.com – After taking part in our orientation presented by experienced team leaders the night of the sandwich run we head out on the streets for two or three hours. Find out how truly liberating this volunteer experience can be – to step outside your personal comfort zone and meet our homeless friends on their own grounds.

You can help get the word out online – visit any of the following links and share them in your blog or on facebook, or post them on Digg or Reddit. There’s lots of photos and even video of our volunteer experience.

Project417 Sandwich Run to the Homeless

TOStreets – another blog on Windows Live Spaces

TOstreets on MySpace – the MySpace page

Project417 – The Facebook page – become a fan

Canada News Blog – a more general blog by Canayjun (moi)

Hogtown Prophets – Listening to prophetic voices from the street

And some of these great link sharing sites –

Twine.com – visit Homeless on twine

Technorati – Homeless blog search by Outreach417

Twitter – follow @canayjun on Twitter

Delicious.com – Outreach417’s bookmarks – hundreds!

[I’ll post more here soon]

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!

SANDWICH RUN IN THE BIG SMOKE

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?

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