Bell Let’s Talk Day Supports Mental Health Initiatives

bell logo_letstalk_enFor many years here on the MissionLog, I’ve spoken about the impact of mental illness on our homeless friends out on the street. So I’m pleased this year to be taking part in a social media event called Bell Let’s Talk Day this year on January 28.  Since 2010 Bell has contributed $62.5 million dollars to mental health initiatives in Canada. A large part of that is generated through activities on Bell Let’s Talk Day.

Two-thirds of homeless people using urban shelters suffer from some form of mental illness. Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health

What happens on Bell Let’s Talk Day? We are encouraged to communicate openly in public, through social media like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ about mental health issues to end the stigma associated with mental illness. 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness at some point in their lives, but it’s still something we don’t like to talk about. Getting the facts and talking openly is important in helping people find support and treatment for their illness. Further, we can’t have a discussion on the root causes of homelessness without addressing mental health.

Here are some of the posts on the MissionLog that address mental health issues:

A Girl Named R

What Do You Think is the Root Cause of Homelessness? (5 parts)

In one of my posts, I shared the following:  “A recent study, by Heather Larkin of the University of Albany – shows the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACE – and homelessness. From her study –

More than 85 percent of the homeless respondents reported having experienced at least one of 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Many (52.4 percent) had experienced more than four categories of traumatic events when growing up. … There is a high ACE prevalence among the homeless people in this study. Individuals with high ACE scores may be more vulnerable to economic downturns and cultural oppression, a person-environment interaction increasing the likelihood of homelessness. Service responses focused on identifying and addressing childhood traumas hold an opportunity for addressing ACEs before they contribute to homelessness.

By addressing mental health issues, we can take an important step in mitigating one of the major causes of homelessness. Here’s the bonus – by getting the word out on Bell Let’s Talk Day, you can help raise even more money.

bell lets talk text pic

So, on January 28, let’s talk.

Bell will donate 5¢ more to mental health initiatives for every:

  • Text message sent*
  • Mobile and long distance call made*
  • *By a Bell or Bell Aliant customer only
  • Tweet using #BellLetsTalk
  • Facebook share of our Bell Let’s Talk image

Join the team and if you tweet on Twitter using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, let me know there @canayjun

You can also connect with the Twitter team by going to @Bell_LetsTalk and @Healthy_Minds

See you out there on January 28th!

<><

Andy

homelessness homeless #whyhomeless

home-less

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

I haven’t added anything new, but still had 7,100 visitors. Guess I better get back to it. But very busy over at phoneworthy.blogspot.com and near to launching speedmobile.ca

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

2011 in review from the Missionlog – Help the Homeless

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,900 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Social Media – Publishing on the Semantic Web with Small Rivers Paper.li

Day 26: Putting the Social Network to Work –

The job search continues.  Resumés are being fine tuned and sent out. Job search websites like Workopolis and Monster are being queried. Friends and family are being reminded to get the word out. Bushes are being beaten… you get the picture.

Those of you who have joined me here on the Missionlog blog have already heard how I’ve been using my online social network to assist with my job search. I’ve been punching up my Twitter and Facebook profiles and got some good buzz from improving my LinkedIn profile. As a matter of fact, the LinkedIn article  – The Value of a LinkedIn Recommendation – was broadcast (re-tweeted) several times on Twitter and also ended up in four online “Daily” newspapers from paper.li by Small Rivers.

It showed up on Canada Homeless & Poverty News from @CanadaVolunteer and quickly was re-published on more, extending my social media reach beyond what I would normally expect.

Your daily online paper from paper.li can be set up and published in just a couple of minutes, or you can spend some time to customize it if you wish. Basically the service scrapes articles found in links from your timeline in Twitter of people you follow, designated Twitter lists or even keyword and hashtag searches. It then retrieves the information and inserts it in a pre-formatted online publication and shows the Twitter name of the contributor (the person who tweeted the link).  You can name the paper as you wish. Mine is the Helping Hands Daily (be sure to check it out) and is gleaned from a custom list followed by or following @canayjun on Twitter –  Activists, volunteers, journalists and other good folks who just plain “get it” when it comes to issues of homelessness and poverty.

 

There are thousands of these paper.li dailies out there. I’ve just started publishing mine and will continue to work on it to improve it’s relevance and scope. The good folks at Small Rivers are continuing to develop the service to make it more useful to people who want to make their social network work. Hopefully it will help me get the word out to prospective employers who are making a difference in ending homelessness.

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Gala Charity Benefit in Toronto to Help the Homeless

Toronto Charity Benefit – ‘Our Toronto includes the Homeless’

Reserve November 28th on your calendar to make a difference for the thousands of people in Toronto who are experiencing homelessness. We pass them on the streets every day and, as the cold weather comes, see them huddled over hot air grates outside Toronto’s downtown skyscapers and lining up outside the crowded emergency shelters or soup kitchens. What can we do? It has to be more than dropping small change in a panhandler’s battered Tim Horton’s cup – real change is what’s needed. For almost twenty years, Project417 has mobilized thousands of community volunteers. They operate relief outreach programs to the homeless year round – building bridges of trust, encouraging the homeless to seek shelter & housing and helping them to move into healthier lifestyles. You can help Project417 continue their work and improve our community – our Toronto – for everyone.

Project417 presents:

The ♫We Are Family Gala♫

Music by: Big John & the Night Trippers
Motown – R&B, Blues, 60’s Rock
&Roll

Saturday, November 28th, 2009 – 6:30 – 11:00PM
Reception & Dance Hors D’Oeuvres & Finger Foods :: Desserts & Pastry Table ::
Silent Auction :: Live Auction – original Artworks :: Raffles, Games & prizes
Tickets $75 pp – VIP Tickets $100 pp ::
RBC Auditoriums, 315 Front Street West, Toronto, ON
(next to the Rogers Centre and CN Tower)

Check back soon for more details – Buy your tickets now.
Online @ project417.com ::

We’re having a party! Project417 is hosting a gala charity benefit – The ♫We Are Family Gala♫. We want to celebrate this community we call Toronto with an evening of live music, good food, dancing and fun! All proceeds from the ♫We Are Family Gala♫ will benefit people in our community who are experiencing homelessness

It’s going to be a Motown theme this year, backed by the rockin, R&B sounds of Big John and the Night Trippers. Fronted by vocalist “Big John” Morris, the Night Trippers will have you puttin’ on your dancin’ shoes and groovin’ to your favorite 60’s and 70’s Motown and Rock n Roll hits. The ♫We Are Family Gala♫ will be a must see event this fall – be prepared for the red carpet treatment and paparazzi when you arrive.

We chose ♫We Are Family♫ to reflect the spirit of the programs Project417 runs to help the homeless. It’s about engaging people in community – more than two thousand volunteers this year – and it is about relationship building. We want to show that this little community we call Toronto cares about the people in our midst who are experiencing homelessness. We won’t pass them by. We won’t leave them behind. We realize that our community can not reach it’s full potential while they are left out in the cold. We need them to find a place to call home with neighbors who care and community services that meet the needs of the whole community.

How can I help?

Do you have a flair for organizing? or decorating? Graphic design? Have some great fun ideas to make our party more entertaining? Just email us at volunteer@project417.com and we’ll hook you up with our fund-raising committee.

We invite all community members to donate new, unused gifts and services to be auctioned or awarded as prizes. If necessary, donors of goods can receive a charitable donation receipt according to CRA guidelines for Gifts in Kind. You must tell us the fair market value of the gift you are donating. Currently, CRA guidelines do not allow for tax-deductible receipts for the donation of services. These types of gifts however, have proven to be very popular at silent auction and we appreciate your support of our cause. We already have a night for two in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the elegant Copper Lane B&B, a week at a resort in Quebec and some Toronto Raptors tickets! What do you have that you could offer to our guests at the gala?

We are
also accepting cash donations to assist with the operation of this worthy cause. Donations of $100, $500 or more can be identified as Sponsors of the Gala. Please make your cheques payable to Project417. A charitable donation receipt will be mailed to you. Online donations will be available soon. Those interested in donating an item can leave it with a member of the Project417 fund-raising committee- contact us by email at donation@project417.com. Thank you, your contributions are much appreciated!

Project417 Programs

Project417 has several active programs in the Toronto Area. Project417 is a division of Ekklesia Inner City Ministries, a registered Canadian charitable organization – CRA registration #890482763RR0001. Our vision is to create a community which is accessible to ALL who are in need. We develop and implement programs which enable people to move into healthier lifestyles. Project417 hosts almost two thousand volunteers each year and guides them in meaningful outreach to the homeless right where they live – out on the street, in shelters, meal programs or drop-ins.


[and just in case you thought it was all pointless, there an answer]

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A Girl Named R

canayjunUpdated Jan.8, 2019 – My heart is breaking to tell you that Crystal died this week after becoming trapped inside a clothing donation bin and losing consciousness in downtown Toronto. You can find out more at the CBC news report ~Andy

Here’s my original story below:

A friend recently told me that people who want to help the homeless are interested in reading more personal stories about those who are experiencing homelessness.  They didn’t know I’ve been posting stories about many of the homeless people we serve at Project417 for several years. It comes with the territory of being a small grassroots organization:  how do you get the word out about the challenges faced by people who are homeless?  If we tell their stories, how do we distribute them to the widest audience possible?  We can blog about them, share them on Facebook, Digg and Reddit and tweet links to the story on Twitter, but there is still no guarantee the information will reach people who have a heart to help.  Some are better at the storytelling than I.  (Follow @invisiblepeople on Twitter ). Me?  I just keep trying to get the word out by writing about my experiences with my homeless friends.  I’m expanding on this story – A Girl Named “R” –  because it is an example of the terrible circumstances that lead many young girls to end up homeless, living on the street.

I first wrote the story after a volunteer blogged about “R” at the CSMurbanupdate.blogspot.com site,  a place where students can describe their inner city volunteering experiences.  She wrote about her identified as “R” only to protect her identity.

I met her on the first afternoon we were there.  I looked down and realized she had prominent scars all over her arms…

It was particularily moving to me because of the young woman the student met – I’ve known “R” for years.  I first met “R” out on the street panhandling with several other homeless youth.  I soon got to know her better at a local Out of the Cold program for street youth.  “R” has been street involved and homeless since she was thirteen,  heading to Toronto to escape the tragedies that befell her in her hometown.  She has endured a youth no one should have to face,  and she bears scars in deeper places than just her arms.

I’ve celebrated birthdays and Christmas holidays with “R”, but she has no home to host her celebrations.  She often conceals the scars on her arms beneath long sleeves,  but even then,  once she gets to know you,  she will push up the sleeves to reveal her pain.  From her wrists to well past her inner elbow,  her arm is a patchwork of deep, parallel and crisscrossing scars,  the result of self-inflicted injury.  “R”‘s life on the streets is one of extreme ups and downs, not unlike many others who experience homelessness.  Sometimes she finds a place to share with friends or a partner,  but it never lasts and she is once again back on the streets.  Her life is ravaged by drugs and her drug of choice changes like the spinning of a roulette wheel.  Morphine,  oxycontin,  crystal meth and crack – they all have carved pieces out of her soul.

She has been in and out of jail,  first youth offender facilities,  and now adult jails and provincial correctional facilities for women.  She has been to well respected treatment and recovery centres.  When she inevitably returns to the city,  (and I have witnessed this now more than once),  “R” is a changed person.  She is clean – she is healthy – the glow is back on her face and her hair shines.  But it’s never more than a few days until she is dragged back under by the street life and the irresistable force exerted by the weight of her painful past.  It is terrible to watch this transformation over and over. On release from jail for example,  she is provided housing – the type of housing governments everywhere reserve for the chronically homeless,  recovering addicts and people with concurrent mental disorders.  Halfway houses they call them, or treatment centers or  “transitional housing”.  Almost all of them are located in the worst areas of inner city Toronto with drug dealers staking out street corners and visiting the houses  to lure back old customers. There are any number of crack houses within spitting distance.  The system always sends “R” right back to the very street that is trying to kill her.

more to life than this?

It is not just a lack of decent housing that causes “R” to fall back to the street. She has taken shelter with loving and caring volunteer families who have opened their homes and asked “R” to be part of the family while she recovered.  The pain runs too deep – her disorders inadequately treated – and “R” has to leave.  That would be a time when she cuts herself again.  She has told me,  “Andy, I just want to feel something.  When I cut myself, I can feel again for a little while, but the drugs…with them I can’t feel a thing…”.

I met a psychiatrist while I was working in New Orleans who works in Chicago’s inner city with troubled youth.  We spoke about “R”.  He told me the significance of scars due self-inflicted cuts:  it is a major indicator of the victims of childhood sexual abuse.  He told me that more than 90% of youth who suffer from “self harm or self-injury” are victims of childhood sexual assault and abuse.  The illness is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a symptom of borderline personality disorder and depressive disorders and described as,  “sometimes associated with mental illness, a history of trauma and abuse including emotional abuse and 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] .

In my recent post, What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part 4,  I wrote:  “A  study by Heather Larkin of the University of Albany – shows the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACE – and homelessness.  From her study –

More than 85 percent of the homeless respondents reported having experienced at least one of 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Many (52.4 percent) had experienced more than four categories of traumatic events when growing up. … There is a high ACE prevalence among the homeless people in this study.  Individuals with high ACE scores may be more vulnerable to economic downturns and cultural oppression,  a person-environment interaction increasing the likelihood of homelessness.  Service responses focused on identifying and addressing childhood traumas hold an opportunity for addressing ACEs before they contribute to homelessness.

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 have included coming to the “official” attention of the authorities both while she was a child and as an adult.  “R” is definitely “in” the system that is supposed to help her.  Why has everyone been so ineffective in helping her,  how has she remained homeless for so long?  As a teen, “R” was labeled 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.  Hell,  dogs deserve better than “R” has been handed.

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 was making her slur her words almost to the point of incoherence and made her body twitch uncontrollably like a scarecrow on strings.  When I arrived,  she dragged herself up from the foot of the light pole 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 Toronto ID cards hanging around their necks.  One had flashes from a private security company on his shoulders.  He was “protection” for the other – a city worker carrying a clipboard.  They were part of a new task force set-up by the city of Toronto’s Streets 2 Homes program to reduce panhandling and homelessness.  They were trying to interview “R” by asking her a very long list of canned questions.  They seemed oblivious to her state,  as if she could be coherent while jonesin for the next 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.  I still hear her saying, “he saved my life”,  in the small hours of the night when I can’t sleep,  thinking of the hopelessness faced by my homeless friends.  I hear it and know in my heart – I haven’t saved “R”.  She’s still lost and that hurts.  She recognizes and loves the people who love her back,  but why can’t we save her?

 

I wish I had a happy ending to the story of a girl named “R” to tell you.  But I don’t.  I’ve lost track of her in this patchwork quilt system that serves the homeless.  The last time I saw here,  she visited our Wednesday night community dinner in the Bloor Lansdowne neighborhood.  She was happy to have just got housed in a transitional home for women right across the street.  She showed me a small white bible in a lovely cedar box that she’d just received as a gift.  She was straight – she was clean – she was healthy – the glow was back on her face and her hair was shining.  She was smiling and,  before she left,  she offered up one more bone crunching hug.  The last I saw her she was walking up Bloor Street with purpose and hope.  Later that night,  she got into a fight with one of the other residents of the transitional home.  The police were called and “R” ran before they got there.  I’ve not seen her since.

Crystal has passed away tragically

UPDATE: January 8, 2019 – Tragically Crystal passed away this week. She was loved.

Jan.8, 2019 – My heart is breaking to tell you that Crystal died this week after becoming trapped inside a clothing donation bin and losing consciousness in downtown Toronto. You can find out more at the CBC news report ~Andy

If you want to help young girls like “R” overcome homelessness, contact me here, or on Twitter @canayjun

And join the #Whyhomeless Movement on Twitter. Connect with me @canayjun and send out tweets on homelessness issues with the hashtag #Whyhomeless.  Join us for our next meeting in Toronto – or start your own movement in your own neighborhood.  The root cause of homelessness is about more than just jobs and housing.  There is a brokenness in our communities that only your love can start to heal.

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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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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!

From Joe the plumber to Obama the painter – Volunteer!

President-elect Barack Obama urges public service, paints at shelter –
A day away from becoming the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama rolled green paint onto blank walls at an emergency homeless shelter in Washington, the Sasha Bruce House, a shelter for teenagers…On the holiday honouring Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,  Obama is asking all Americans to mark the civil rights leader’s legacy by making a renewed commitment to public service.

King, who pushed for equality through peaceful resistance, was assassinated in 1968. “Today, we celebrate the life of a preacher who, more than 45 years ago, stood on our national mall in the shadow of Lincoln and shared his dream for our nation. His was a vision that all Americans might share the freedom to make of our lives what we will; that our children might climb higher than we would,” Obama said in his statement. Obama said King’s “was a life lived in loving service to others.As we honor that legacy, it’s not a day just to pause and reflect — it’s a day to act,” Obama said. [end of excerpt]

Obama gets it. He just plain gets it. He understands what is needed, and that it is not “the government” that can do it, but ordinary people, by donating their time and energy – their sweat equity – who can make the biggest difference to a nation. There are shelters near you, right now, that are in need of volunteers. Shelters for teens like the one Obama was helping at, shelters for women and children seeking refuge from abusive relationships, shelters for youth, men and women who find themselves homeless. They all need help. Simple hard work. And not so hard – they need painters, dishwashers,chefs,waiters and waitresses, barbers,manicurists, sweepers and even patient listeners. I’m glad in a way that we are so close to America here in Canada – maybe the call for grassroots public service will bear fruit here at home. We’re so used to calling public service working for the government, when Barack Obama has reminded us that true public service starts with you, the public.

Now that is a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.
[volunteer at project417.com]

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Toronto Tragedy – Homeless Man Burns to Death Outside Bank ATM

Homelessness in Toronto has been called a disaster. Now it has progressed to the  point of tragic calamity. The Saturday Toronto Star (Jan 10 2009) reports that John Massie, 46, (known to us here by his street name – Classy), a homeless man who lived on the streets in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, has died of burns he suffered in a terrible misadventure.  It’s almost impossible to retain perspective when reading an article like this. Like many homeless in the dwontown Toronto core, Massie had been seeking a few minutes warm respite from the cold inside a bank ATM lobby at King and Yonge. Like many, he had been drinking, obviously high proof alcohol of some sort – police say he had spilled alcohol on himself, lit a smoke outside the bank and went up in flames. He died hours later in hospital from the burns.

Bench or Bed?

Bench or Bed?

Many volunteers with Project417 have walked the streets of the financial district with me handing out meals and warm clothing, especially the Richmond – King – Yonge – University block frequented by so many homeless. Years ago, Massie probably would have been camped out at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, where upwards of a hundred used to camp on benches and in cardboard huts – but council and the new Mayor David Miller forced most of them off saying the presence of so many homeless was bad for tourism. Those of you who walk with me see where most have gone: two blocks down into the financial district, shivering and living out a hopeless existence up against the glass and steel towers of banks and wealthy corporations.

What will it take to make this city, this country, wake up and see the travesty that is homelessness? The Star reports Massie was banned from most shelters, and even several public parks due to what they called bothersome, anti-social behaviour. Banned then, even from emergency shelter – banned from Out of the Cold programs – banished to walk the streets and sleep on cement, taking refuge in alcohol, even cheap mouthwash – abandoned by the very agencies and programs that exist to help him.  Security guards and shelter workers, many with Dixon Hall, the agency hired by the city to police grassroots Out of the Cold programs in churches,  regularly ban our homeless friends from shelters due to aggressive, violent behavior.  Some church Out of the Cold programs have opted out of having Dixon Hall staff on site,  instead footing the bill themselves for private safety and security staff so they can have more control over decisions such as banning or turning away the homeless. It’s a difficult line to walk – knowing that it may be a life or death decision, as it was for John Massie.

The report refers to “city restrictions that prevent outreach agencies [from] distributing survival supplies…like sleeping bags, hot food and blankets” as a possible contributing factor to the tragic death of John Massie.  These City of Toronto restrictions do exist and they are almost criminal. There is no bylaw cited by the city in imposing the restriction. Several years ago, all outreach agencies that rely on City of Toronto funding to run their programs received correspondence from the city requiring them to cease handing out food, warm clothing, and outdoor gear or face review of their funding – financial coercion, almost hostage taking in effect. I know most of them complied – you used to be able to call the city’s  StreetHelp line and have a sleeping bag or blanket delivered to a homeless person without shelter on the street – no more, but they will offer to transport the person to a shelter at some point in the next few hours – the same shelters that ban them and turn them away. ( A police “drunk tank” would be better than Massie’s fate outside). I know of more than one organization that no longer delivers hot meals on the street because of pressure from city staff.  There is no bylaw being enforced by the city in this – although several right-wing councillors had suggested anyone handing out food to the homeless needed a food vendors licence like the hotdog carts – ludicrous! They base their cruel coercion on the ivory tower philosophy that servicing homeless on the streets only “enables” their street lifestyle and inhibits them from receiving the help they need – help the City of Toronto has bet will come only from their now long-running “Streets to Homes” programs – whose street outreach workers travel with security guards by their side.

Project417 Help the HomelessProject417’s street outreach receives no city or government funding. An independent Christian charity, we will continue to share the elements of our liturgy – in the form of nutritious sandwich bag lunches prepared in churches across the GTA by thousands of volunteers every year. We will continue to walk the streets and be in community with our abandoned homeless friends like John Massie. And we will continue to grieve for each and every homeless man and woman that dies a needless death cold, hungry and alone. Rest in peace John…

To find out how you can walk with me in solidarity to the memory of John Massie, visit project417.com::


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