These are people not wild dogs
Last night for the first time I volunteered at the Extreme Weather shelter at the St. Francis de Sales Parish in Burnaby. The church opens its doors to the homeless when the temperatures hit below zero. Nightly temperatures this week have been around -5 degrees.
I am told that this project was initiated by the Lookout Society, Vancouver. After months of organizing, all it took was a phone call to the parish and an extreme weather shelter was set up. Mattresses, blankets and food and shelter for the night are made available. Two workers from the Lookout Society, Vancouver, keep watch. A volunteer coordinator from the parish organizes her string of volunteers, parishioners provide food with generous abundance, and from seven oclock on, men and women who live on our Burnaby streets arrive.
I enter a bright, large and clean church basement. We are shown the bedding and are delegated to set up the mattresses, each with two blankets. This night we make up beds for 20 people set up around the walls. If more people arrive bedding will be arranged for them. I am told that in the morning the workers disinfect the mattresses and the blankets will be shipped off to hospital laundries. I am both relieved and impressed by the attention to cleanliness. We put out tables and chairs. I am handed a few small toiletry tubes and wrapped soaps to place in the mens and womens washroom (alas, no showers).
The welcome table is set with coffee urn, sugar and cream and cold cranberry juice which are available all night. We, the volunteers are delegated our kitchen duties. I am staggered by the amount of food, most donated by the parishioners. A prepared meal is brought in by one of the volunteers to be warmed up, but just in case there wont be enough, the vast supplies in the freezer are checked and a hefty lasagna is also placed in the oven. Twice during our short time there, people arrived with food, either for the freezers, or for the night.
At seven there is the first knock at the door. People start arriving out of the cold. The volunteers are stationed in the kitchen.
A tall good looking man, sad, silent, sensitive, troubled, confused by his life, politely stands waiting his turn at the kitchen counter. I am certain that this person was loved and his parents are heartbroken. Another man, wild hair, face contorted by the ravages of street life, stands waiting his turn, humbled by his circumstances. A tall thin young man, lively and cheerful, likely someone who can raise the noise level, is more outgoing about his need to be fed. A woman accompanied by her man, downcast, approaches the counter hardly looking up, takes a plate of food. A bearded toothless man jokes with the workers and volunteers that he knows, and a special plate of food that doesnt require chewing is given to him.
Later, after a time of warming up and having eaten hot food, the men and woman assume their positions on mattresses. Some lie down, some sit and stare in their own isolation, some talk to each other. I noticed one man asleep sitting up against the wall. And it goes on.
We leave when our immediate duties are finished. The night staff will take care of the rest. I am told people will arrive all night.
As I drive back to my warm and comfortable home in my warm and comfortable car I remember how often I have been hopelessly embarrassed by approaches made to me by the homeless on the street. These are our sons and daughters and our brothers and sisters. These are our people whose mental illness or life circumstances have made them the rejects of our society. We stand by and tolerate this? We allow these men and women to wander around all day and sleep on the streets at night.
When I woke this morning, it was snowing heavily. I am angry. Why doesnt the Municipality of Burnaby have a permanent shelter? We are treating our people like wild dogs who forage through our garbage for food, hide in corners to stay dry and warm, and who are on the alert to avoid our insults and fear.
Article written by Lois Woofe
Submitted with permission of Lookout Emergency Aid Society and the Burnaby Task Force On Homelessness