It is starting to get colder as November imposes its dreary clime on the landscape. And as a reponse to the need that exists, even in middle class university town, local churches open their doors to those who are homeless.
I arrived on Friday night at the First United Church in uptown Waterloo, Ontario to do my over night shift as a volunteer. I was greeted in a curt, but polite manner, by Howie (not his real name) and told to sign in. Howie is a no-nonsense guy, with a gruff exterior and a heart of gold. He tells me that he's been doing this work for ten years and it shows. He knows all the men and women who come through the doors, tired, cold, strung-out and looking for a place to crash for the night. I'm struck by Howie's straight-forward compassion, and his caring for the people who find themselves under his charge for the night.
Throughout the night we greet any new comers by readying a bed for them, preparing a bit of food if they are hungry and finding them some dry clothes in the mountain of donations that litter the hallway. In all we greet 40-50 people - Howie tells me this is a light evening. Some nights last year there were close to 100 folks huddled together in church halls across the twin-cities of Kitchener and Waterloo. When the program began ten years ago they would get around 10 people.
Howie tells me that most people in our community haven't a clue that we have a housing and homelessness problem. He says that some people, when considering the plight of those on the street, still believe that the homeless want to live the way they do. He observes, "nobody wants to live this way, there is always a story why they ended up here." And most of the stories include major losses and disadvantages that the majority of us have had the good fortune to dodge.
Most of the people are in bed and laying down when I arrived, so I didn't get much of a chance to talk to the guests. The ones that I did meet, however, almost to a person, presented with the signs of chronic mental illness. Among the disorders, addictions play a substantial role. The lack of services within the community has it these people hard; low employability, poor access to health services, the lack of affordable housing and the harshness of the northern climate have all conspired to make living on the streets the only viable means of surviving. Howie tells me,"these people know all the tricks; wandering around drunk and a nuisance can, if you're lucky, get you a night in a warm cell and a meal in the morning - you survive another night."
And that's what the Out of the Cold program tries to do - prevent people dieing on our streets. (Homeless will inevitably cut people's lives short - see http://www.streethealth.ca/Downloads/Streethealth0508.pdf for details). But these people need so much more, they need access to services that will help them deal with the problems that give rise to homelessness in the first place. (One such attempt at providing these services can be found at http://www.supportivehousingofwaterloo.org/)