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Shelter's door seems like the right place to be

When providing warmth to the homeless, what looks like futility may really be a moment of beauty, Larry Matthews writes

Celia Krampien for The Globe and Mail

"Anyone numbers 25-30 – any number 30 and under!"

I'm standing in the door of our church, inviting in our homeless guests huddled outside in the cold and dark, five at a time. People arrive hours before we open, so we distribute lineup numbers to keep things reasonably fair.

"Numbers 30-35 –35 and under!"

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Men and women crowd past me into our warm foyer. Many carry all they own in heavy bundles. Exhausted from another day on the streets, they just want to get inside, get downstairs, get off their feet and get warm.

This is guest registration at our version of Out of the Cold, at Blythwood Road Baptist Church. We are one node in an informal network of churches and synagogues in Toronto that open their buildings to feed and shelter homeless guests.

We're all run by volunteers and funded by donations. Together, we create a patchwork of overnight havens during the coldest months, outposts of warmth for those at risk on the streets and understandably fearful of large permanent shelters. Similar efforts dot cities across Canada.

No public money comes to us. But many groups, ours included, accept support provided by Dixon Hall, a venerable social service agency. The City of Toronto funds their excellent staff to help keep the peace and connect our guests to other services.

It's a noble effort. In January, it will be 22 years for our church. And many nights I have sorely wished to quit.

"40 and under – 40 and under!" I sound like a carnival barker, calling into the dark.

Our corps of volunteers is a marvel of community spirit. The camaraderie is sweet.

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Some come from a variety of churches; others have no church, or have other faiths. We are neighbours, co-workers, friends or simply like-minded people making a place for people who have nothing. Many bond with our guests, sharing their stories and friendship.

At our site, for 22 Saturday nights from November through March, we provide meals, a mat and a blanket, a used-clothing service and a warm, safe place to sleep.

We typically serve dinner to about 125-140 people, generally overwhelming our dining space, our kitchen and especially our bathrooms. (I will not describe the cleanup challenges.) We have room for 60 guests to sleep overnight.

We are rewarded with a sense of doing the right thing. We are enriched by getting to know our guests and their stories. And we are witness to many touching human moments, people gathered around the piano, or acts of generosity and kindness between guests.

"45 and under!"

Some guests are with us for years; some come and go, moving on, making the giant leap into housing, or encountering tragedy. Often we never know.

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And doubts and discouragement dog us.

Out of the Cold was intended to be temporary, to prevent people from freezing in the streets, until government programs made things better. We no longer kid ourselves: our ragtag patchwork "Out of the Cold" now is a line in Toronto's official annual winter plan for caring for people who have no homes.

Perhaps to be certain that we recognize our own ineffectiveness, poverty advocates and activists regularly criticize us for relieving pressure on public programs and officials.

Those of us with long experience deflect suggestions from new volunteers to add features to our programs, join coalitions or take part in protests. Our experience is that we will limp across the season's finish line at the end of March with a guilty sense of relief; relief, because we are running out of steam; guilty, because nothing has changed, except that by spring the weather itself is no longer life-threatening.

We know our limitations. And I hate our limitations.

I wish we had a more appropriate building and better skills. I hate saying "no" to doing more. Asking myself if we simply make matters worse tempts me to walk away.

Maybe this is what is meant by burnout. If so, my remedy came from Danny.

Danny has been our church custodian for several years. He's also a member of our church and a volunteer in Out of the Cold since we began. He shoulders a lot of behind-the-scenes physical work, and then takes on even more as a volunteer.

Danny is also a drummer, an artist and something of a philosopher. One evening, I aired my discomforts with him. He was thoughtful for a while.

"The problem is," he said "that we want the movie. We want a story arc: We want to know how it turns out. But we can't.

"This is a black-and-white photo of a beautiful moment. We don't know what came before. Or what comes next. We just have to appreciate the scene."

I have felt better since then. Danny's wisdom took root in my psyche.

Objectively, nothing has changed. But I am no longer put off by the very program I help to run.

The big picture remains depressing. But on a freezing winter night, the front door to Out of the Cold seems like the right place to be; calling numbers out into the dark seems the right thing to do.

Perhaps, even a thing of beauty.

Larry Matthews lives in Toronto.

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