Out of the Cold, St. Aidan’s
LISA ROCHON, January 30, 2007
Two weeks into the program, it’s safe to declare that the homeless turning up at St. Aidan’s for warmth and humanity are a lot like you and me.
The scent of fear and loathing wafted through the Beaches when the Out of the Cold program for the homeless was proposed at St. Aidan’s church. Opposition to providing temporary shelter to a dozen unfortunates during the coldest winter months hung on through Christmas, even while more than 100 volunteers from across the Beaches signed on to help and project lead, Michael Chambers, dressed in red suit jacket and a Santa Claus hat, kept jollying the program along during church announcements. And now the snow has settled. Two weeks into the program, it’s safe to declare that the homeless turning up at St. Aidan’s for warmth and humanity are a lot like you and me.
Like so many others, I’m a long-time Beacher and one of the volunteers for the Out of the Cold program. And this is what it was like two weeks ago when our team served breakfast for the first time to the homeless:
At 6 a.m., I arrive at St. Aidan’s with a friend, Charlotte, and my 16-year-old daughter, Genevieve, carrying jugs of juice, mandarins and two big dishes of blueberry bread pudding. After all the controversy and the fear mongering, we’re a little nervous about the Out of the Cold and who we might encounter down in the basement. Turns out only six people have stayed the night – others arrived the night before for the dinner and a desire for companionship. Two guys who I mistake for volunteers are already having coffee and reading newspapers at the wooden table. Others emerge from the gym carrying toothbrushes. I feel as if I’ve invaded their bedroom.
The trick is to make their stay look natural, and we engage in casual conversation the way people do by the water cooler except that we’re waiting for the toast to pop up in the basement of a church. There’s the guy who is perfectly turned out in pressed chinos, shirt and sweater. If I weren’t serving him breakfast at St. Aidan’s, I’d guess he was a high school history teacher. Or maybe a bureaucrat with a knack for creating folk art. He explains how he made a lantern from a cheese grater painted red – how he wanted to make a lamp from a Bakelite toaster, but he didn’t want to take the lovely machine apart. There’s the guy with a baseball cap and an easy smile with a love of the blues - he could easily pass for a computer software designer – and he remembers the joy of seeing some fine bands in the Beaches’ bars, which was also the problem.
A tall, skinny guy with a confusion of teeth is my instant favourite because he has returned for a second helping of my bread pudding; he wonders with wide-eyed enthusiasm whether the recipe is something like the quiche he tasted once at Holy Blossom’s Out of the Cold program. A middle aged woman with long frizzy hair approaches slowly, wheeling two suitcases behind her. She surveys the breakfast buffet with world weary skepticism. But, complimented on a ring she’s wearing, she smiles.
The coffee is brewing, the food is a plenty – there’s even an apple pie left over from the night before. We’re not feeding gruel into the mouths of raving lunatics. What we’re doing is conversing.
“These are extremely personable guys,” says Dave Ruttkay, a team leader at St. Aidan’s whom I meet on Monday during the subsequent and most recent Out of the Cold program in the Beaches. “They are lucid and together – they may be recovering addicts,” he says, referring not only to what he’s observed at St. Aidan’s but during his long-time experience volunteering as a mentor to the homeless at a downtown day program called Sanctuary. “They have been dissed, abandoned and rejected – and this is what they’ve experienced all of their life.”
Take the muscular guy with angry pale eyes, who has returned to St. Aidan’s for two consecutive Mondays. When I first meet him, he looked with a scowl at my bread pudding, and rejected it. Finally, he agreed to pocket a few mandarins before heading out with a knapsack on his back. Where was he going in such a hurry? Not to huddle over a heating grate like the “hard to serve” homeless or even to stand around in the cold and panhandle. He might have scored a free gym pass at the YMCA. If not, there are always the libraries and the malls, at least until security tells him to move along. Ruttkay has noticed the angry man and concurs that he seems to be definitely on edge, or it might be something else: embarrassment at being part of this unknowable group called Toronto’s homeless.
Still, I’m left wondering how the guy with the chinos managed the perfect crease in his pants. “Place them under your mat before you go to sleep,” says David Mitchell, a burly guy from Dixon Hall who helped to train the volunteers for St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold. Now, he’s posted at the front door of the church, providing security and an ability to turn away anybody who might come to the program intoxicated. Mitchell has seen it all over the years but he’s something of a soft touch. We get to talking in the church hallway. “You must always give somebody a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. Then the church door opens and a man carrying a bag of clothing comes in. “Come on in,” says Mitchell in his booming voice. “Are you in need of a bed?” The man with the bag looks up and smiles. He’s another volunteer, come to drop off some warm clothing.