The Messiah came to me in my sleep on the weekend in the form of a homeless man named Emmanuel.
No more than 20 years old and peering through two of the clearest, most beautiful brown eyes you will ever see, Emmanuel is one of about 150 people who staked out Nathan Phillips Square Saturday night, November 19, for Humanize Toronto's Sleep-out in Solidarity, calling for a firm timeline to create affordable housing and end homelessness in Canada's richest city.
Just before 10 pm, the crowd of coffee-powered activists begin setting up shop in front of the closed City Hall doors, settling down to listen to two hours of musical acts and speakers.
Some are clearly street people, others you don't know. Michael Shapcott of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee drops by to offer a few words of encouragement. But not one of the city's 45 local politicians is here. Too bad. They would have heard James, a reasonable facsimile of Jesus save for the beer cans and blue overalls, take the mic and tear a strip off the government for failing so many in our society.
At 11 pm, organizers call for a minute of noise to symbolically ring through the hallowed walls of City Hall, a call that the slightly tipsy James insists on stretching out a few minutes more. A couple security guards peek out from the ground-floor offices a few metres from the din but don't come out.
Humanize Toronto's Robert Verdecchia says the city denied an application for a permit to hold the rally. The city doesn't issue permits for overnight events in the square. But the group, which wants the city to commit to ending homelessness by 2015, has gone ahead with its protest anyway. Council passed a motion in September agreeing to end homelessness. But it stopped short of following the lead of Red Deer, Alberta, which set in place a multi-year plan with clear goals to provide housing support and build new and truly affordable housing.
For a while, the security guards go about their regular business inside and pay the protestors little mind.
Trouble first comes before midnight, when a hulking security guard wades through the crowd telling people they can't light candles to commemorate the 103 people who have died on city streets since the 2003 municipal election. That is until he is confronted by an now tipsier James, demanding compassion. The guard says he's only doing his job and walks away, allowing the ceremony to continue.
Hazel, a former Tent City resident, has heard about the rally from someone on the streetcar and decides to spend the night. She tells me how she misses former neighbours like Dri and Ishtvan, with whom she's lost touch, but not her time at the "hellholes" that are city shelters like the recently burnt-out Fred Victor.
Over the next couple of hours I chat with Diana Katgara, a Scarberian whose middle-class parents are worried she's here, about the privileged paths that have led us to spend a chilly November night in sleeping bags beneath a three-quarter moon and a sky full of corporate office lights. She's here to gain some insight into her social work studies.
By 3:30 am, the crowd has thinned to 29 of us sprawled on the cement and metal grilles, and I'm lulled to sleep by the quiet chatter of a dozen or so folks huddled around the cement pillars.
But a couple hours later the messiah wakes the sleeping by announcing his arrival with a wailing megaphone and launches into a five-minute tirade about power, control and creation. He's reading from a single-spaced, five-page, 3,933-word manifesto entitled The Clash Of The Universe. "I am Emmanuel and I am the messiah. God has shown me this. God has shown me the truth."
A couple of youths finally calm him down, allowing others to get back to sleep while I make a urinary contribution to the west City Hall garden. I return in time to see a man roll by the sleeping cocoons on a skateboard ka clunk, ka clunk with two excitable American pit bull terriers in tow, asking them, "Where's Mommy? Where's Mommy?"
They dig through the four closest tightly sealed sleeping bags before "Mommy" pokes her head out and gives them a kiss.
Emmanuel is back, however, at 7 am, and this time he does not stop, his back to the dawning day as he paces, reading his manifesto in staccato sentences. He talks above the youths trying to stop him and the organizers trying to move him away from the group now awakening from their slumber. Several Food Not Bombs volunteers pass out bags of biscuits, bananas, boxes of orange juice and sandwiches of Swiss cheese on buttered brown bread.
The messiah is finally confronted by James, now sober, puffing away on a cigarette. Emmanuel shoves a table of food, spilling two steaming pots of broth. All jaws drop. Soon, an ambulance and police show up, and Emmanuel races off to Bay Street before returning to hear badge number 3667 tell him gently but forcefully to leave or face arrest. Emmanuel finally leaves, and I thank the other cop, badge number 8054, for not arresting him. He tells me all they would've done is taken him to the hospital anyway.
But after the cops leave, City Hall security arrest Emmanuel for trespassing. It's only fitting, I suppose, that this face of humanity would show up at such a rally along with the curious, the compassionate and those who just plain feel at home sleeping in a public space.
Alas, the event didn't attract anyone ignorant enough to tell me that Emmanuel chose to be there that night, chose to scamper away from the cops before returning and chose to get arrested.
Perhaps it's just as well, as no doubt this person would've cheered as this young man yelling that he's God's advocate was dragged into the building mere hours before the drama is taken over nearby by the cheer and goodwill of the Santa Claus Parade.