It's a rainy tuesday night and the last of the season for our local homeless shelter. The dragons are airborne tonight for two of our guests who suffer with schizophrenia. They shout "Duck!" and weave to avoid these invisible monsters. We carry on handing out the mats and blankets, scrubbing pots in the kitchen, searching for shampoo or toothpaste and running out to the store to pick up milk.
This is our home most Tuesday nights from October until April, when the Out Of The Cold programs around Toronto shut down for another year.
I'm the "hallway monitor" at this church. My job entails hanging out and talking to the guests, who over the years have become my friends. I am just a small piece in a puzzle that includes 200 volunteers working over 6,000 hours to provide more than 3,360 dinners, 1,680 breakfasts and 960 bagged lunches. Three part-time social workers and a dozen outreach workers from Dixon Hall make up the balance.
Our program provides overnight shelter for 70 people. We're supported by seven church congregations and the community and, in part, by an annual fundraising concert that takes on a life of its own. This is a busy place, never a dull moment, though tonight there's an air of sadness.
A small group sits around the dining table sipping coffee. They're Danny's friends, and they're grieving his loss. Danny died on the street a few days ago, and there is pain in the voice of one young man when he talks about having to identify his remains at the morgue.
Danny stories are told and retold. Central to the conversation is a photocopied picture of him smiling and looking very handsome. He's camping in the woods, wearing a blue jacket.
I have my own Danny story from last week, when I ran into him on Bloor. He stopped me to give me a hug. He always called me "baby" even though I was 10 years older than him. We leave a plate of food and a candle on the stage to honour his presence.
Moriarty, the black house cat, makes her way through the maze of mats and sleeping bodies. Some of the guests call her Piggy because of her size. The cat saunters by Judy, our guest who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Judy recently reappeared on the streets after being housed for a year. I was shocked and disappointed to see her. One of the guests has taken on the role of caregiver, helping her dress, eat, walk, use the bathroom and go out for a cigarette. Her mat is strategically placed near a doorway so she can manage a trip to the bathroom during the night with the aid of her shopping cart.
The vulnerability of living on the street and being chronically ill is hard to imagine, but Judy has many friends here at the shelter. They roll up a supply of cigarettes for her to take away, and bring her cups of coffee.
There's a lump in my throat. I try to cover it up by gathering cups and taking them to the kitchen.
Jennifer stops in the hallway to chat about her family. She shows me the new shirt her grandma crocheted for her, and a photograph of her grandson. We're the same age and have many things in common. She has the same kind of epilepsy as my daughter; we talk about the awful drugs she takes to counter the seizures. I've known her for four years. She's a sweet, nurturing woman. It's hard to believe she lives on the street.
As the evening progresses, we run out of mats, and a message is sent to the front lines. We're told to turn away guests, give them a subway token and redirect them to Council Fire shelter.
Our front lines include a cheerful doorman named Bob, a 10-year veteran volunteer and retired firefighter. He passes cigarettes out to the crowd. He doesn't smoke himself, but this service has made him very popular among the guests. Bob sees no end in sight for the program. "The numbers increase every year," he says. "Now our shelter is always full, and we often run out of food."
After the shift, a group of us volunteers head down to the pub for our own impromptu counselling session, a ritual debriefing where we share stories and frustrations over a pint.
Although Out Of The Cold is not the solution to Toronto's housing crisis, it does provide warmth, shelter and meals as well as respectful and caring companionship. A community exists here.