This month, Mme. Catherine Dunphy, shares her experiences volunteering with the Out Of The Cold program. Mme. Dunphy was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for her biography, Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero.
Maybe it ‘s because I was embarrassed. My neighbours — some of them– fought hard and dirty to try and stop an Out Of The Cold program from starting up at the huge Tudor-style church at the end of our street. When their battle made the papers (front page and just before Christmas) we were described as a “toney” Beach neighbourhood determined to keep out twelve — count ’em — homeless people.
Maybe it’s because I was feeling guilty. As a Toronto Star reporter, I was the first journalist in Canada assigned to a homelessness reporting beat. My idea. My bosses and I believed that all we had to do was raise awareness — show people the hidden homeless, the aboriginal homeless, the addicted homeless, the runaway teen, battered mothers — and governments would act, all would be well and no one would ever have to sleep on a street grate again.
I had long since left the beat (which was dissolved with its mission not accomplished) when I signed on to volunteer at the Out of the Cold program at St. Aidan’s Anglican Church. Hey, with my creds, I figured they would certainly want me, But there were literally hundreds in my community who also wanted to work there and I waited until the second winter before being accepted. I figured out why after I got my assignment. I had the job of monitoring the line-up outside. The idea was that the neighbours who were still fighting the program and on the alert for any misdemeanors, would see me — one of their own — and cease and desist. Which eventually did happen, but not because of me.
Always the lineup started hours before the doors opened at 4 pm, a fact noted by the OOTC foes who complained that the motley men were upsetting to the daycare kids or anyone on their way to the beach. What they didn’t notice was the system — worked out by the guys themselves. Every week, a genial, gentle homeless man named George, wearing a tuque, was first in line. Always he brought with him a wrinkled scrap of paper and a pen. Every week, he wrote numbers down on the paper. One to twelve. Then to 16, 20, finally 25 — as the program grew. The men (and yes, a few, but very few women) signed up as they arrived. The paper and pen were kept in a tin can by the side of the door. They respected the system. They didn’t cheat it, didn’t scratch out a name at, say, the #3 spot, and insert their own. Didn’t pretend they’d signed in when they hadn’t.
George always stayed close to the door but a lot of the guys signed in on the scrap, then took off. They were well aware they were under neighbourhood surveillance. As long as they were back by 4 pm they had their bed. After that, the chances were good that someone else would fill their spot. They were pretty motivated to come back. The St. Aidan’s OOTC was getting very popular in the homeless circuit, becoming known as a culinary hotspot. Local businesses seemed to be in competition as to who could donate the most — and the tastiest — food. And that was just for the afternoon snacks. Every week, different groups cooked up feasts for 65, after a lot of people started coming round just for the food. Those who got a bed also got a huge hot breakfast and a packed lunch.