Poverty in Winter

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Last week I asked for comments and added “social justice” as a possible linking thought to the blog about Sin.  Quite a stretch from but I think I can defend it.  If we allow that ‘sin’ can ever be a useful term, the biggest collective sin of all time has to be the appallingly uneven distribution of the goods of the earth necessary to life.

The big snowfalls and the falling temperature of this winter keep front and centre my particular social concern, the plight of people who don’t have dry warm places of their own to go to  – a necessity of life in a northern winter.  The homeless will walk between each of the drop-ins and shelters they know, trying to hit meal times and opening times – you can be turned away if you get it wrong.  Are they walking with dry feet?  Cracked and chapped wet sore feet are standard.   

The really poor living in substandard housing may have a roof but is the room warm and dry?  How safe is the stove if it will be used to heat the room?  Do they and their children have dry boots to wear when they have to go out in the snow and slush? 

At this point, my pondering often stops.  Too many manifestations of injustice!  Too much pain.  How to select one cause over another, when we don’t really know how to make a positive difference anyhow?  

It seems to me that many people of good will have given up on the discussion.  In part, there seems nothing more to say, and no one to say it to.  Or, we buy into the obvious argument about domestic poverty – unavoidable fall-out from a poor economy and globalization?  Well, by a single measure of children living in poverty, Canada is listed very close to the bottom of industrialized countries with the same economic factors at play but whose kids aren’t paying the price.  Movers and shakers in Canada could do a lot better but it’s a matter of priorities and political will.  And those holding tightly to the reins of power don’t seem to have it.  But do we?  That’s unfair – because lots of people are doing the best they can.

Cathy Crowe in Toronto went to the front lines, using and her nursing and organizational skills to provide direct help to people on the street, and brought that sub-culture to public attention.  The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee furthered the cause and doesn’t give up.  Intelligent and informed comment turns up in Toronto’s two independent newspapers.  The Web hums with news of smart social action (for instance, see John Deacon’s blog, www.homelessguide.com .  Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti and Greg Mortenson in Pakistan become heroes to the young who are paying attention.

The lack of general willingness to talk about poverty may be because even with clear voices raised, we still can’t see any broad movement or leadership challenging the current blinkered political machines.  So back to ourselves and our small communities – what can we do??   I believe that individuals working with a team of like-minded people are able to mobilize amazingly helpful things.

A very individual approach is to determine where you have been excited and most turned on by some work you’ve done in the social field, or felt most effective or come away knowing that something about what just went down feels very worthwhile.  

I want to switch focus from the broader picture to the personal experiential, because I think that we can learn from each other’s experiences.  Developing a shared perspective on what is important to those who suffer in winter because of poverty may provide a fresh viewpoint on what ordinary people can do.  It’s a start.  I expect in other weeks to look at different aspects of the experience of poverty, and hope you will contribute some of them.

Downtown Toronto, Out of the Cold

For 13 years, I coordinated the Out of the Cold program at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Toronto and these observations are drawn from experiences there.  We all started out as absolute newcomers to working with this population (as did the volunteers at the eventual 65 other OOTC programs, at their height of numbers). 

Immediate priorities of a homeless person on a winter’s night

The immediate priorities of a person using shelters in winter are: (1) safety from interference with one’s person; (2) a reasonably comfortable place to lie down, (3) dry conditions, (4) working washrooms, (5) a hot supper that tastes good, (6) juices and coffee available all night, (7) breakfast (preferably warm), (8) absence of hassling from other guests or volunteers and staff.

Needs beyond the essential

More subtle needs come clear as time passes, and these are expressed indirectly.  For instance, no one asked for foot care, but after a volunteer saw the battered feet of guest, she organized weekly foot care, with the guidance of a medical specialist.  Even with six stations set up, line-ups were standard from Week One.  Several cases of heart failure were identified from the condition of feet and legs (and guests taken to hospital). 

Other supports that became popular were the clothing table, a range of medical services (non-prescriptive, often including direction to walk-in clinics), housing help, legal queries about available options.

Belonging, community

More buried still was the satisfaction expressed in season-end evaluations: how the friendliness, social warmth, kindness, smiles and conversation of the volunteers were what some guests like best – after the food.

Not just a Band-Aid

Over time we realized the program deserved to be seen as more than a Band-Aid activity – the frequent criticism leveled.  For some of the men and women who came in, being treated regularly as ‘outsiders’, OOTC had become their place.  One long-time user, a musician, spoke of it as his “club”.

Is this a bad thing?

What do you think?

What are your experiences face to face with poverty in the City?

Shall we continue this conversation?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Poverty in Winter

  1. As someone who has experienced a lifetime of relative poverty as well as episodic homelessness I can tell you it is terrifying . Your descriptions of the Out of the Cold program are NOT what I knew. Nonetheless, it was a nasty and scary time.
    After having volunteered at Yonge Street Mission for nearly ten years, I can tell you that I have admired the people who came to ‘us’ for help. Working in the food bank and clothing room were eye opening experiences. I realized that without a certain hard shell developing, these people would not be able to survive the constant; fear, cold, and attitudes of ‘regular’ people that they see daily. I doubt my ability to survive it.
    Across the street as I look through my window, I see Louie. Louie spends all day every day at the library. He brings his cart with everything he owns.Pshing it down the street, rain, shine or snow. He is always polite. Always softspoken, always willing to help people in and around the library. I don’t know Louie’s story and I can see by the regular additions to his cart that he probably has an addiction to hoarding. Yet somehow he is always clean, shaved and as my dad would say ‘brushed up and curry-combed’. Louie has no obvious signs of mental illness. When I had occasion to speak to him, he rose to meet me. I can tell you thats old world manners not often seen. Yet for all the obvious issues, Louie never never complains. He seems to accept his plight with a stoicsm and gentle manners. As I look across at him waiting patiently each morning for the library to open, I think ‘dear God’ how lucky I am. And do nothing.
    (spelling errors cause you can’t correct in this format)

  2. Dear Rosemary:
    Thank you for your incredible article!
    Why the issue of poverty isn’t on the forefront of every political conversation of substance baffles me. How can we be so indifferent to a growing segment of our population who experience more hardship in one night than many of us experience in a year again baffles me, but then when I get into my warm car and drive by 4 or 5 homeless people and not invite one of them home, I realize to my shame the sin is as much mine as anyone’s…
    Maybe that’s the real reason we don’t talk about it. Because we know that to really do something will cost us much more than we’re willing to part with.
    This is why – and this is probably Rosemary’s point – we have to talk about sin as debilitating the social infrastructure of care; which makes us vie rather than love one another; that has us persecuting rather than welcoming with open arms the stranger.
    All of which God hates more than bad theology.

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