by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Last night I did not attend the final session of the First Interfaith (originally St. Peter’s) Out of the Cold. It might be not just the last of the season, but also the absolute final for that site (the decision will be made in the early summer). As with many other locations, the energy is running out. This matters, of course, for the guests and for the volunteers. It has opened for 20 full seasons (there was an additional short trial run the year before). There aren’t a great many alternatives for the homeless who have used the services on Thursdays through the winter.
This fully volunteer operation has fed over 100 people 24 times a year and provided sleeping accommodation and other services for about 70 people over the same winter months. There has been security and maintenance help provided by the City over the past 12 of those 20 years: and thank goodness (the volunteers couldn’t have continued to provide every aspect of the tasks required). It’s an amazing history, duplicated by many other Toronto church communities over the past several decades.
Why didn’t I go to the last night? I happened to be the St. Peter’s person first inspired to action by an article in the Toronto Star in 1991, deciding that we could do what three other locations were doing – provide food and shelter once a week from November until April to people who were homeless. Someone called Sister Susan Moran had inspired students from St. Michae’ls to do lunches at Holy Rosary on Saturdays, and St. Patrick’s and St. Basil’s Churches were each operating a volunteer dinner and overnight program. Why not us?? And within a few weeks, the Caribbean, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese communities at St. Peter’s were engaged in planning meals while a couple of us borrowed mattresses from St Patrick’s. Seaton House let us do laundry there, and local grocers gave food and it fell into place.
We organized a system of teams for different parts of the 16 hours required to set up (from scratch), prepare the meal and serve it, take down tables and set up sleeping, ‘man’ the door as street people kept arriving through the night, monitor the room as guests slept, get breakfast ready at 5:30, serve it, and clean up down to the walls once guests had left at 8 a.m.
In our innocence, we needed George Chester, an old time street-worker priest who had given out food to Muslims in Egypt and worked among the poor for decades. He was a guiding spirit who showed us how to deal with violent episodes, with needy people who kept coming when we had no more space, with making the place welcoming and as kindly as was humanly possible. Sister Susan insisted on table clothes, napkins and flowers, and as much hominess as we could muster.
That first five weeks, I found my dreams filled with the faces of the guests. They swam into my mind’s eye. Many were older. Eugene Unger, who subsequently died in the street in the ‘off-season’ (as have many others), was one of those in a long overcoat, who wore it as he slept on his mat, bedding down as early as we would allow. It was powerful – looking into faces that I’d passed by on the street before but never really seen. Blood on the floor, from a bit of a punch-up among those crowding at the front door, taught me the significance of decent security, though it was years before we could see how to manage that. First of all, relieve the crowding- find a way that people could wait more comfortably. Provide some food and coffee while they were waiting. And so we learned. We got better at it every week. But it was several years before I ceased the anxious sleep starting three days before the night of the program. A prayer each time, going out my door in the afternoon: Please Lord, let me come home to our daughter and my husband. I was never convinced that it was a sure thing.
We got better and better. Many volunteers returned year after year. We identified more clearly the specific tasks needed in the Shift time slots. Shift Managers emerged – people with a knack for leadership. More experienced ‘guests’, who in the early years were wary of the volunteers and leadership, began to contribute to the orderliness of an evening. We created safe spaces for particularly inebriated guests to rest, knowing that sending them back outdoors was potentially fatal.
Foot care specialists, legal students, art teachers, clothing sorters and distributors, and nurses and housing workers came to provide special skills that supported the work of the regular volunteers. A whole synagogue of competent willing volunteers (Darchai Noam) joined us in the eighth year and suddenly we had a new burst of energy to relieve our weariness.
The atmosphere in the rooms of that church basement on Thursday nights was memorable. On a good night, the rooms were humming with humour, friendliness, wonderful food smells, and a sense that we were all One in the Spirit. On the worst nights, it was more of a struggle (too few volunteers, particularly miserable weather in the preceding day). But I will remember the good nights because they were some of the best of my life. We were working as a community.
At 11 years, I retired as Coordinator. My new job was too taxing to permit the heavy time commitment. Some wonderful women took over and a remarkable long-time Darchai Noam volunteer has coordinated for the past 8 years (doing this while fighting cancer one winter). For a few years I found a few ways to be useful.
I couldn’t go last night because it meant too much. I’m moved almost to tears as I have written this – my husband and I lived with Out of the Cold in the heart of our family through all that time and it was awful and wonderful. Awful that it was needed, wonderful that we managed to create a place for street people where all of us there felt wanted and loved. Such a blending of people. Amazing that it could happen.
And it happened, for a time, in over 60 locations in Toronto.