Homeless prefer grassroots Out of the Cold program versus city run shelters

It’s spring right? I mean it’s getting warmer right?  Well, I don’t know about where you live, but here in Toronto there has been a dearth of fine spring weather. We’ve had more than our share it seems of unseasonably cold weather, especially cold, blustery winds and the perennial April showers. Most of us, we live with it, it’s an annual thing – how soon will it warm up – and doesn’t seem to affect our daily routine more than getting the car out of the garage and walking from the parking lot to work or other destinations. To our homeless friends on the street however, it is much more than an inconvenience.

Out of the Cold: for the homeless

Out of the Cold: for the homeless

Toronto’s Out of the Cold program has wrapped up again for another season. What this means for the few hundred homeless people who attend the Out of the Cold programs is that they are once again “Out on the Streets”. I was out with a small volunteer group a couple of weeks ago with the regular Project417 Sandwich Run outreach to the homeless on a Monday night. The streets have been particularly quieter this winter as far as the presence of the homeless (more on this later) but most of our route was busier that night and as we arrived at Nathan Phillips Square at the Toronto City Hall, there was a marked increase in our homeless friends that I haven’t seen since last fall.

Five years ago
, it was very different at city hall. Then Mayor Mel Lastman had unofficially condoned the homeless sleeping outside city hall all around Nathan Phillips Square “if they had no other shelter”. It was a year round phenomenon with upwards of two hundred people sleeping in a cardboard jungle right next to the front doors of city hall or just bundled up in sleeping bags on every available bench and corner protected from the wind and elements. That whole period in Toronto’s homelessness saga deserves a more detailed analysis. There had been a marked population boom when Home Depot and the city shut down Tent City down by the harbour, but suffice to say that upon the ascension to power of Mayor David Miller, the official policy changed, Streets to Homes was born, the 100 plus bed Edwards street shelter opened (now closed and slated for “affordable” housing) and city security quickly turfed the homeless residents of Nathan Phillips Square. This prompted one homeless bard to pen a lilting country tune, “How do You Sleep”, dedicated to Mayor Miller. One woman, who had slept on the Square for a few years, simply moved down a couple blocks onto a hot air ventilating grate across from a major hotel, where we see her every night we are on the street – yes, that’s right, she has slept in that exposed sidewalk location every night for the last five years. Again, Mayor Miller has demonstrated that he is not unfeeling when it comes to homelessness and more independent study is required of the touted success of the Streets to Homes program he championed, but this blog is about our friends still sleeping outside at City Hall.

Homeless on Queen Street W., Toronto

Homeless on Queen Street W., Toronto

During the winter months, Nathan Phillips Square is one of the stops on our Project417 Sandwich Run that has several routes spanning the downtown core from about Bathurst out to Parliament and from Bloor down to the Gardiner Expressway (with a van route that reaches more outlying areas). This winter – we go out on sandwich runs even during cold weather alerts of which there were many this year in temperatures below minus twenty – there has generally been only two or three homeless men and women sleeping at city hall. There has almost always been at least one – our dear friend Randy*, a double amputee, who sleeps there sitting upright in his wheelchair with his sleeping bag upside down over his head. During the recent celebrated Earth Hour on Nathan Phillips Square (I’ve never encountered such bright lights and high powered amplified music during any other “blackout”), we spent almost three quarters of an hour talking to Randy and looking on at the eco-revellers from Randy’s dark, hidden alcove just steps from the celebration. Randy practices “lights out” 365 days a year, except for the daily charge his wheelchair battery receives at a friend’s close by. Streets to Homes outreach workers are in constant contact with anyone, including Randy, who sleeps at city hall, but so far have been ineffective in convincing many chronically homeless men and women like him to choose the severely limited housing options available. [*Randy is not his real name]

Now during the spring, summer and fall
, the number of our homeless friends sleeping on Nathan Phillips still rises to more than a dozen, sometimes double that. On the recent Monday night, we had no sooner approached Randy than I noticed there were several more homeless in view under the walkway. As soon as they noticed us, they literally ran over, happy to see us, recognizing the tell tale bag lunches out team carries. “Hey Andy, we’re back”, a couple shouted. I’ve known many of them for almost ten years going back to the first time I ventured out on the streets to help the homeless with Project417 (Our director, Joe Elkerton has been performing outreach to the street homeless almost twenty years in Toronto). “Hey, I’m glad to see you!”,  I answered back, but in truth,  I was disturbed and profoundly saddened to see their familiar faces. Yes, they’re my friends and yes I missed them over the winter, but I had hoped that some had found a place to call home in the last four months.

The reason they are back out on the streets at night is, as I mentioned at the start, the end of the Out of the Cold Program until next November. For those of you who don’t know, or who may have been misinformed, Out of the Cold is not a City of Toronto or other level of government program. What it is,  is a grassroots success story – a faith based program started by Sister Susan Moran and her St. Michael’s School students back in 1987 and a coalition of  local downtown Christian church communities. Indeed it has developed into a multi-faith initiative with representation at 23 facilities from different faith and organizations taking part now. Very simply, the model is:  local downtown churches open their doors one night a week to provide a hot meal and a place to sleep “out of the cold”. In Toronto, more than three thousand volunteers help every winter to feed and provide shelter to about five hundred of our homeless friends. The majority of the food, materials, supplies, shelter and other costs are funded by the local church members. (Note – The city does fund the program peripherally – a local non-profit social service agency -currently Dixon Hall- has an annual contract to send one or two safety and security personnel to some sites, some transportation of guests and the supply/ laundering of a limited number of blankets and sleeping mats. They also provide counselling, housing worker and referral services to the guests. A separate community health care provider offers a registered nurse at each location) Only 16 of the churches fully opt in to these city services with several preferring the freedom and intimacy of program delivery funded and guided by their own community resources and principals. This model has spread nationwide and Sister Susan was recognized with the Order of Canada in 2006 for her contribution.

Why the streets see a surge of the over five hundred homeless when Out of the Cold ends is because the majority of them would not step foot in a city run shelter. They just plain like the Out of the Cold program sites and the volunteers who run them. They tell me the food is better by far – the people are friendlier – the rules less stringent – the atmosphere more inviting and they enjoy the other programs run concurrent to the Out of the Cold like, music nights, sports, foodbanks, clothing banks, crafts and personal hygiene care services. The sleeping arrangements are often more primitive than city run shelters, usually just thin mats on the floor placed in open areas like church gyms, but still our homeless friends praise the program and bemoan the fact that it runs only November to April.

There are over three thousand city run emergency shelter beds at numerous locations from small 20 to 30 bed operations to the 600 bed monster on George Street – Seaton House, (affectionately dubbed Satan House by it’s inhabitants) and this number has dropped due to budget cuts and the questionable recommendations of the infamous city sponsored “homeless count census” – a limited, one day snapshot of street populations. The Out of the Cold program has remained stable or grown over the same period. Our homeless friends eagerly attend Out of the Cold shelters, many making the trek across the city several nights a week to the next church location that is open that night. There is one Out of the Cold program that operates more than one night a week.  University Settlement House, an independent non-profit, United Way partner agency and City of Toronto supported community center next to the Grange Park,  runs an Out of the Cold Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter and Saturdays, Sundays only in the summer. It is one of the best liked shelters amongst our street friends, and they all miss Fridays now that spring has come.

Love on the street

Love on the street

It’s time the city reviewed their emergency shelter programs and borrowed a page from the Out of the Cold program’s success story. The city shelters are efficiently run, relatively clean and safe to a certain degree – but they are still shunned by many of the homeless. Many lack the humanity and compassion shown to them by Out of the Cold volunteer efforts. Our friends are homeless – not just house-less. What is the distinction? What makes a house a home? – LOVE – A commodity in short supply evidently when payed for by tax dollars and delivered by bureaucrats. Thank God, Toronto’s faith community has a surfeit of love and compassion – I only wish, for the five hundred more men and women we’ll be serving now out on the streets with the Project417 sandwich runs,  that communities could see that people need to come in out of the cold year round.

If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to one of the local Toronto Out of the Cold sites, the best way is to contact them directly.  There is no formal or central  “Out of the Cold” foundation to receive donations, each location is self-supporting through their local congregations – and the OOTC schedule link above is maintained by Dixon Hall, a separate non-profit. So I’ve taken the time to compile this list of the 2008/2009  Out of the Cold locations:

Knox Presbyterian Youth Dinner & Foodbank

630 Spadina Ave (no overnight program)

University Settlement House

23 Grange Rd. Year round Out of the Cold program

St. Patrick’s Church

141 McCaul Street at Dundas

St. Margaret’s Church

156 – 6th Street (Islington and Birmingham)

Evangel Hall

552 Adelaide,   E. of Bathurst

York Region Mosaic Interfaith community

Yorkminister Park Baptist

1585 Yonge Street,  N. of St. Clair

Holy Blossom Temple

1950 Bathurst at Eglinton

Eastminster  United

310 Danforth Ave. at Chester

Blythwood Road Baptist

80 Blythwood Road
N of Yonge/Eglington

St. Matthew’s /  Our Lady Peace

3962 BloorSt W

St. Brigid’s

Woodbine & Danforth

Beth Sholom / Beth Tzedec
1445 Eglinton Ave W

First Interfaith at St. Matthew’s

729 St. Clair Ave. W

All Saints Kingsway Anglican

2850 Bloor W

Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah Synagogue

100 Elder St

Chinese Gospel Church

450 Dundas W

Knox United

Agincourt

St. Aidan’s

70 Silver Birch Ave

St. Michaels Cathedral

66 Bond Street (St. Mike’s parish)

Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship 1307 Bloor St. W;
(Overnight tba Community dinner only, year round)

To volunteer for a Project417 Sandwich Run to the homeless visit Project417.com and check our online volunteer calendar and read about other volunteers’ stories. More than two thousand people helped us last year – come on out and see!

Hurricane Ike Disaster Recovery – San Leon, Texas – Volunteer Trip

The recovery work continues –

From our facebook group, come visit us there:

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=37327829412

Andy

Andy

(you must be logged into Facebook to visit the group)


 
 
Continuing disaster relief effortsby Project417 team member Andy Coates

San Leon, Texas

San Leon, Texas

in September and October , there will be another volunteer trip to take part in the recovery work in Galveston County from December 13th to 17th, 2008. The work will take place in San Leon, Texas, a small town on the coast that depends primarily on the devastated fishing industry for survival. The Hurricane Ike storm surge severely damaged most homes in San Leon and the volunteer recovery projects will consist mostly of property clean-up and house renovation and gutting.
Plans arefor a Toronto and area team to visit San Leon Texas in the second week of January. April and Andy are heading down there this week (Dec 11th)  to meet a group of 12 volunteers from Georgia State University- The Vietnamese Students Association and we will be performing community relief work such as property clean-up, and renovations / gutting of flood damaged homes for primarily the Vietnamese American families who live there.The Georgia group is there from the 13th to the 17 of December and then we’ll return.In the second week of January, we also have tentatively booked another group of volunteers from the University of Illinois, approximately 20 students, to visit San Leon again. Many of this group have experience gutting out homes and other relief work in Alabama, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.

Consider joining a team. Donate to project417 to help the Hurricane Ike victims

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Ontario Stages Largest Ever Emergency Exercise

Andy Heads to Thunder Bay with Emergency Disaster Services Team

Before heading back to Texas with a small Project417 team to help with the Hurricane Ike recovery in San Leon, Galveston County, I have one stop to make – Thunder Bay in Northern Ontario. It’s almost as far north from Toronto as Texas is south. I’ll be driving one of the vans for the Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services response team, including several members who also were in Texas last month. It should prove to be a challenging test of our disaster preparedness. Disaster teams helping with the exercise will include the Canadian Armed Forces, O.P.P., local police and fire-fighters, Red Cross, St. Johns Ambulance, Salvation Army, etc. We’ll be staying at the local armoury and primarily involved in food preparation and distribution to both emergency responders and the mock disaster victims. We leave Monday early for a 15 hour drive and return the next Monday, Nov. 24th.  See you then…with more photos. Here’s the news release.

TORONTO, Nov. 10 /CNW/ – NEWS
Ontario will test its ability to respond to a disaster by participating in the largest emergency response exercise held in recent history. Exercise Trillium Response will involve all levels of government and will
simulate a massive ice storm in the northwestern area of the province, similar in scope to the one that devastated eastern Ontario and Québec in 1998. The exercise will take place in Thunder Bay and area between November 17 and 23. More than 1,500 participants from the Ontario and Canadian government,
25 municipalities and three First Nations communities, the province of Manitoba and non-government organizations, will participate. A fleet of specialized equipment and tactical teams will be deployed…

more

Hurricane Ike – Volunteer Trip – Texas Recovery

Volunteers needed – Going to San Leon, Galveston County, Texas

Time and Place: still tentative

Starting: 10 to 14 days duration between Friday, November 14, 2008 and Sunday, Jan 14, 2009

Location: Texas – Houston, Pasadena, Galveston County, Seabrook, Kemah, Bacliff, San Leon

Contact Info: This is a Facebook event, visit the Project417 page on Facebook, or leave a comment here.

Description: Project417 is returning to Texas to help with Hurricane Ike Recovery. We have a tentative location in Galveston County – San, Leon, Texas, where I was doing disaster relief at the San Leon Community Church Community Relief Center set up there. The work will most likely consist of property clean-up of hurricane debris, help re-building and repairing homes damaged by the storm, helping at the local disaster relief and recovery center, visiting families recovering from the storm.

Dates are still flexible, we had been hoping to go Nov. 14th, but more volunteers needed, a team of six or seven would be great – we have three so far. We’d like to get down before Christmas but are flexible [ the folks there need help NOW ] Duration of the stay will be 10 days to two weeks. Approx cost per person, includes return flight, van/bus rental: CDN$800 — Accomodation is tentatively free at a local church or volunteer camp, meals extra so far.

More details to come – check the event for more updates

22 photos

The MissionLog – News, Updates, Volunteering.

Volunteering & Homelessness news

by Andy Coats: UPDATED February 11,2020

The most recent posts directly follow this intro.

Bio:  advocate for the homeless in the GTA – currently Burlington. I encourage you to volunteer in your community wherever the need is greatest.  Connect with me on Twitter @canayjun and @phoneworthy.  Here are some of my favorite posts:

 

Project417 Newsletter – June 2008 – Help the homeless

Haven for the homeless

This is the latest update to the work of Project417 – Ekklesia Inner City Ministries and their programs to help the homeless. Find out about volunteering with the homeless in Toronto. Newsletter topics: Sandwich Runs to the Homeless; Bloor Lansdowne Community Dinner; New Orleans Rebuilding; Homeless Street Outreach; volunteer homeless toronto; Hurricanes Katrina and Ike…

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Divine Appointment in Toronto

Center for Student Missions

From the CSM Urban Update blog, the experiences of a student volunteer in Toronto. –

I wanted to share who I had my divine appointment with – While we were at one of the ministry sites in Toronto that work with participants who are mentally challenged. I got the chance to spend some time with a girl named “R”. I met her on the first afternoon we were there. I looked down and realized she had prominent scars all over her arms…”

It’s particularily moving to me because of the young woman she met, identified as “R” only to protect her identity. I’ve known “R” for years – first met her at an Out of the Cold program for street youth. She has been street involved and homeless since she was thirteen. She has endured a youth no one should have to face, and she bears scars in deeper places than just her arms.

I met a psychiatrist who worked in Chicago’s inner city with troubled youth. He told me the significance of scars due self-inflicted cuts: It is the major indicator of victims of child sexual abuse. From Wikipedia, self-injury or self harm is described – The illness is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) as a symptom of borderline personality disorder and depressive disorders. It is sometimes associated with mental illness, a history of trauma and abuse including emotional abuse, sexual abuse … A study in 2003 found an extremely high prevalance of self-injury among 428 homeless and runaway youth (age 16 to 19) with 72% of males and 66% of females reporting a past history of self-mutilation. [Tyler, Kimberly A., Les B. Whitbeck, Dan R. Hoyt, and Kurt D. Johnson (2003), “Self Mutilation and Homeless Youth: The Role of Family Abuse, Street Experiences, and Mental Disorders”, Journal of Research on Adolescence 13 (4): 457–474

I include this technical background because although “R” is now a young woman, she has been on the street since she was a child in more than one Canadian city. Many more people than our organization have become familiar with her. This would of include coming to the “official” attention of the authorities. Why has everyone been so inneffective in helping her, how has she remained homeless for so long? As a teen, “R” was labelled by society as a “runaway” with all of the negative connotations that carries. In effect, most people would write her off as the author of her own condition. Far from it. “R” is a victim. She deserves better. I met her once on a street corner in Toronto, Spadina and Queen, where she was panhandling. She was in particularily bad shape that day, very high from her drug of choice at the time, which caused her to slur her words and made her body twitch uncontrollably.  When I arrived, she dragged herself up from the foot of the lightpole she was leaning against and, arms wide, asked for the only thing she has ever requested of me – a hug. Not the little, hihowareyou hugs we deliver in polite company, but a great big, bone crushing, head burying HUG.! It always cheers her up. Standing to one side were two semi-official looking people with those City of Tornto ID cards hanging around their necks. One had flashes from a private security company on his shoulders. He was “protection” for the city worker carrying a clipboard. Part of a new task force set-up by Toronto’s Streets to Homes programs to reduce panhandling. They were trying to interview “R” by asking a very long list of canned questions. They seemed oblivious to her state – as if she could be coherent while jonesin for a fix. After our hug, she turned to them and said, “I can’t talk to you now, Andy’s here. He saved my life”. After we talked for a while and I encouraged her to head for a woman’s shelter down the street, I left and went into a store at the corner to buy her bottled water. Her lips were cracked and bleeding she was so dehydrated. As I brought it back to her, the city social worker was back at it again, making little check marks on her clipboard survey. How those little pen strokes were supposed to bring healing to “R”, I’ll never know. She certainly deserves better.

Thanks to all the volunteers who come and meet people like “R” on their home turf. You bring with you a very precious commodity: love!
CSM brings hundreds of volunteers out to Project417 to take part in sandwich runs to the homeless on the streets of Toronto every year. Visit them at csm.org or donate to “R” at project417.com

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Leadership vs. Teamwork

Grunt work - getting your hands dirty.Sunday is a great day to reflect and, if you’re lucky, to be inspired. I got lucky yesterday and heard a great message by our Pastor, Joe Elkerton, at the Bloor Lansdowne Christian Fellowship. It was on leadership.

It made me think how our society is so focused on “leadership” but seems to forget what really makes things work – service. Everyone wants to be a great leader but we’ve all forgotten how to get any real work done. Who does the grunt work? Who gets their hands dirty?

A quick search on Google turns up 185 million results for leadership and only 22.5 million for teamwork. (less than 5% of the sites dealing with teamwork were related to the church or Christianity) How are we getting any work done? Well, the answer is simple – We’re not. As a society we have a fixation with celebrity and stardom. Not just in sports and entertainment, but in politics, government, business and public works. We think it is great leaders who accomplish great works. I don’t think this is exclusively a characteristic of Western society but it seems to have been taken to the extreme here in North America.

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message”. (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964) Basically that the media influence and even overshadow the messages or information being delivered to us. Those media have changed drastically since McLuhan coined the phrase. Not just print, radio, film or television, now the internet and video hold the place of preeminence with a host of new delivery technologies – on-demand, podcasts, mobile messaging, streaming video, HD-DVD, HDTV, MP3, iTunes, P2P, satellite, Twitter,  Facebook. A raging torrent of information roars to capture our attention and the primary means the agents of delivery utilize to achieve this is still that old Hollywood magic act – the “Star”.

In 1968 artist Andy Warhol said, ” In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” which has morphed into our idea of 15 seconds of fame. Warhol was reading the pulse of evolving media delivery and how it shaped society around us. It is mirrored in U.S. presidential races. We’ve just seen the Obama – Clinton parade go by for the democratic nomination and now we will witness the the most stupendous circus act of all – Who will be the next president of the United States? Barack Obama or John McCain? All of the world shaping issues that affect the daily lives of every person on the planet will be distilled down to into some live streaming version of American Idol. I wouldn’t be suprised to see some future election decided by voters texting their choice to a five digit number from their cellphone.

This is leadership miscontrued. The personal glorification raised above the interests of the public good. And we all want it for ourselves. We want to be leaders, we want to be stars, we want to be famous, if only for fifteen minutes. As a matter of fact, we want this so much that many of us choose infamy rather than obscurity. Ask any corporate public relations person and they’ll tell you “even bad press is good publicity”.

In the workplace, in school, in the public shere, we all want to lead (or think we should). Very few are willing to serve and follow. The church is not immune. Perhaps it is even more susceptible to the star making machinery. Witness the excesses visited upon Christians everywhere hungry to cozy up to the next prophet, looking for their share of the fame. How many churches hold leadership seminars?

No really great leader in the bible asked for the job. Rather they were called from positions of service. As a matter fo fact, like Moses or Jonah, they tried to decline the calling.  We need to do the same. Rather than seeking for opportunities to use our skills to lead others, we need to seek opportunites to serve. We need to get our hands dirty, even when there’s no one recording the moment on camera to post photos on Facebook. Pick up the garbage, sweep out the corners, carry the burden, bind the wounds, offer the cool drink of water. Join the team. It already has a captain, coach and superstar – Jesus Christ.

Africa – The BG Experience

Volunteering with an NGO in the Congo, two volunteers set out on a two year mission to share their expertise and help the people of DRC. Barb and Gerry (BG) were tireless volunteers with us helping the homeless in Toronto. Now ready for a bigger adventure…A great real time view of volunteerism and humanitarianism at work. Each of us can make a difference.

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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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