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The homeless can eat well (if they know where to go)

Toronto Star
Sunday, 17 February 2013

The homeless can eat well (if they know where to go)“Can you spare any change for a meal?”

I hear this question a half-dozen times on an average day. And always, I wonder — do the homeless of Toronto depend on spare change for their next meal? To placate my guilty conscience, I head out on the town in search of a free meal.

Tucked in beside the Louis Vuitton and Burberry shops in Yorkville, the homeless and hungry line up for something to eat at the basement side door of Church of the Redeemer.

It’s raining outside and guests are eager to come into the community room, set up for what could just as easily be a church potluck, filled with the smells of lunch, all tables decorated with autumn leaves.

MORE FROM THESTAR.COM: Food token program coming

They stash their bags beneath their usual seats and wait beside the small industrial kitchen, where half a dozen volunteers are busy at work.

Every weekday, Redeemer volunteer George Ruscoe passes out the bread and oatmeal. “How fresh is this bread, George?” asks a guest, knocking it against the counter. “As fresh as it’s going to get,” Ruscoe responds good-naturedly.

“Sold out of bread,” he calls at 10:26 a.m. There are groans among those hovering for breakfast seconds. “It’s only four minutes until lunch,” he reminds them.

Meanwhile, for more than two hours, kitchen leaders Geraldine Sharp and Tania Bhaggiyadatta and their team of volunteers have been preparing lunch — beef stroganoff, potatoes, coleslaw and decadent cakes donated from Willow Cakes in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“We look at what we have in the pantry and get creative,” says Bhaggiyadatta, remembering that they recently had to part with stores of meat due to the XL Foods recall. “Last week, we made a vegetarian casserole and just before lunch, someone came in with a donation of sausages.”

Redeemer, which serves 100 to 120 people a day, gets most of its donations from the Daily Bread and Second Harvest food banks, local businesses, such as Fred’s Bread and Rabba, and the church community.

I join a table of guests at Redeemer to ask whether they believe there are enough meal programs in Toronto for everyone to eat. (Food banks are generally more targeted to people who can cook and transport food.)

Nicely groomed, with a Confederate cap and ever-present smile, Bruce Bathgate, an award-winning banjo player who fell on hard times a few years ago, is a regular at Redeemer’s drop-in meal program. He tells me from experience, “You could eat free 12 times a day, if you wanted to, and some of these guys do.” But, he continues, “I avoid some places because of the bedbugs — they get in your clothes.”

Back in the Redeemer kitchen, I meet volunteer and drop-in guest Gordon Oliver, cutting the bad spots off eggplant, who invites me to make the rounds with him to his favourite drop-ins, to see what it’s really like to find free food in Toronto. He tells me to bring a container for leftovers.

*According to* the city’s most recent published report (2011), there are more than 5,000 homeless people in Toronto. Some of them sleep outdoors, some are in health-care and treatment facilities, some are incarcerated in Toronto-area detention centres, and some live in violence-against-women shelters.

In the wake of a recent cut in provincial funding for homelessness prevention, that number could rise.

To serve the poor, there are about four dozen drop-in meal programs throughout the city, concentrated in the downtown core. Many of these, including St. Francis Table on Queen St. W., are funded entirely by individuals and small service groups, and depend on the generosity of the local community.

Angie Hocking, outreach program co-ordinator at Redeemer, has worked in a number of these facilities. She says despite the many meal programs, a hot meal is not always “accessible” in the fullest of terms.

“Sometimes there are safety concerns, sometimes cleanliness issues (e.g., bedbugs), and other times, they are just very hard to find. You also have to be very aware and savvy to remember all the schedules and take into account special closings throughout the year for each place.”

In addition, Hocking says distance can be an issue. Affordable housing is often located outside the downtown core, a ways from the drop-in meal programs.

“Toronto is a big place. If you are in the west end and are told that you can get a free meal if you just go to the east end, how many of us would walk that far?”

Probably not many, says Hocking. “If people are on Ontario Works (welfare) and able to volunteer somewhere, they do approve $100 per month to help cover a Metropass. But now with Metropasses costing almost $130 a month, and Ontario Works already well below any type of acceptable living standard ($599 a month, which should cover your rent, food and anything else), it’s just not enough. I can’t blame people that don’t want to drag their belongings all over the city for a free sandwich.”

*A few days after* we met at Redeemer, I connect with Oliver to take him up on his offer for a free food tour. He’s 62 but has the energy of someone half his age. He walks quickly and speaks steadily and articulately, except for a constant injection of cursing. He seems legitimately thrilled to show me the drop-in system.

On our way to lunch, we stop at Trinity Bellwoods Park, where Oliver motions toward a bench. He pulls out a can of beer and pops the tab. “If the cops show up, just walk that way.”

Oliver recently moved from living in shelters to social housing. Trained as a chartered accountant, Oliver says he found himself on the downside of the business he started. “When my customers dried up, I had no income, so I got kicked out of my apartment in Midland. I got on a bus and came down to the city.”

That was late 2004. He ended up at the Salvation Army Gateway, a shelter and drop-in centre for the homeless at Gerrard and Broadview. He moved around and got on the 156,000-name list for a place to live in social housing. When he turned 59, his older age put him at the top of the list.

I ask what he normally does during the day. “This — going for food — and I write.”

Oliver is bipolar and says when he’s at his best, he writes. When he’s not at the top, he binge drinks. He says he’s at the bottom now, but he’s having a nice day.

He’s written a novel about Canadian history and says he plans to try and sell it soon.

Asked about his impression of the drop-in programs in downtown Toronto, Oliver tells me his favourite time of year is the Out of the Cold season. This outreach program — hosted by Toronto’s faith-based communities and co-ordinated by the 80-year-old, multi-service agency Dixon Hall — provides an additional 125 meals and beds throughout the city every day from mid-November to mid-April.

“There’s this place I like to go at Bloor and Bathurst,” says Oliver. “Every second Thursday, they have an Italian group of ladies cook a five-course meal. They start with the antipasto, then they serve soup, then they come with the salad, then veal parmesan, penne pasta and lightly cooked artichoke hearts. I’m telling you, the food is to die for.”

We stop first at St. Stephen’s Community House in Kensington Market, a meal program that serves 200 people at lunch, funded by the United Way, private donors and the federal government. As we descend to the building’s basement, Oliver warns me not to ask questions inside — some guests won’t like it. The staff are friendly and greet Oliver by name, but the room has the depressed atmosphere of a waiting room in purgatory. People sprawl about, some sleep, some watch with disinterest as Forrest Gump plays on a television.

“This is where I hang out,” says Oliver.

“Do you like it?” I ask. He shrugs.

We sit at a table near the front and two men join us, one of whom starts rearranging chairs. “Only four can sit here,” he rules. When a fifth man sits too near, he’s told to move away.

“Our table will get served first because we’re at the front,” says Oliver.

A cheery woman brings a tray full of plates. For lunch, it’s beef, bread, peas and rice. “Let’s pack this up and head to the next place,” says Oliver, pulling out his container. “This will be my dinner.”

Next we head to St. Felix Centre, a drop-in near Spadina and Queen that also houses 50 women. As we make our way through parks and side streets, I’m lost, but Oliver knows the route well. Across the way from the St. Felix Church sanctuary, the church-funded community centre is bright and charming, set up to look like a café restaurant. Funded by the St. Felix church community and private donations, the meal program serves 100 at lunch.

As we sit down, Oliver says, “If you’re hungry in the city of Toronto, you’re either stupid or lazy. It’s one of the two, because there is so much free food in this city, nobody needs to go hungry.”

The food is brought to our table, and I ask the young server what it is. “Chicken something,” he says, adding that the cooked meat was donated from chefs at a trade show the day before. The chicken something comes with potatoes, green salad and yogurt.

“I don’t really like it,” says Oliver. “The potatoes are okay.” We pack it up to go. Before we leave the compound, Oliver shows me a small St. Felix shop with free and low-priced clothes and household items. He tells me the NASCAR jacket he’s wearing was free.

On Queen St. W., we pass a man asking for change. Oliver puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out $1.75. “How far are you from your next bottle?” he asks. The man chats but doesn’t answer the question. Oliver gives him the 75 cents and puts the dollar back in his pocket. I give the panhandler the container of St. Felix food that Oliver didn’t like.
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