Giving Shelter to the Homeless

Written by: Wendy Van Leeuwen, Guest Writer

“Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.” -Isaiah 58:7 (NLT) 

Members of First CRC in midtown Toronto have been picking up garden tools, cooking chili, hosting information sessions, and packing backpacks and baskets in an effort to live out this verse in their own neighbourhood.

While homelessness and inadequate housing are not new issues, particularly in larger urban centres, First CRC didn’t become involved until, as a result of Covid restrictions, the shelter system in Toronto established a temporary shelter just a few blocks from the church in the Roehampton Hotel. Many people in the residential areas near the hotel were quite nervous about the idea of a shelter in their own backyard, citing concerns about the safety of children and an increase in crime, drug use, and inappropriate behaviour.

According to Rika Vander Laan, a member of First CRC’s Support Team for Housing Challenges (STHC), the concerns and associated media attention “were not necessarily based in reality, but more on stereotypes of who ‘homeless’ people are. We believed there needed to be another voice from the community, welcoming shelter residents to the neighbourhood, rather than ostracizing and labeling them. The shelter was very much like a hotel, but not a space or environment that had a sense of home. After conversations with the shelter staff, we discovered other churches were on the same wavelength.”

Pastor Thyra Van Keeken, who already had a relationship with other church leaders in the neighbourhood, facilitated First CRC’s involvement in the community liaison committee set up by the shelter. They also became an integral member in a group of local supportive churches called the Roehampton Friendlies. This allowed them to focus both on bringing practical support to the Roehampton shelter, as well as get involved in broader homelessness and housing initiatives across the city. Interest grew from there, with a core group of congregation members gathering to talk about how to be a welcoming presence and how to form relationships with shelter residents and staff. Other congregation members got involved in various projects as they evolved. Support and funding and financial management strategies to move the initiatives forward were provided by the deacons of First CRC. The deacons also spearheaded a collaboration with a local Muslim faith group to provide backpacks full of school supplies to school-aged children of families who needed support. This project also provided an opportunity for children of the congregation to participate! 

Initially, the shelter staff, the community liaison committee, and the Roehampton Friendlies worked together to allay the fears of the local community members, schools, and businesses. They listened carefully to the concerns and put strategies in place to make people feel more comfortable and safe, such as arranging neighbourhood walkabouts by shelter staff, which increased visibility, fostered communication with both shelter clients and neighbours, and helped to address issues as they came up.

With their church and community partners, the people of First CRC became involved in providing some practical items to the shelter clients; things like clothing and hygiene products. Delivering those items allowed them to start building relationships with clients and staff, as far as Covid restrictions would allow. They also donated a Christmas tree and decorations, warm winter clothing, books, games and puzzles. Members participated in the Welcome Basket project, which consists of putting together baskets of essential items for people who were transitioning into permanent housing – including some kitchen basics, bed linens, and cleaning supplies. 

A rooftop ice cream social hosted by the shelter provided an opportunity for church and community members to meet some of the clients and to hear their stories. It also planted the seed of an idea: How could the community partners support the shelter by making the rooftop space more inviting? The shelter’s program director spoke to the First CRC congregation after a Sunday service and soon plans were underway for a rooftop garden space! Outdoor furniture, shade structures, soil, and plants were purchased, along with raised garden beds built by another church group. A garden planting day was held, which brought together gardeners from the church, shelter clients, and staff. It was a memorable day, with church and community members working alongside clients, hearing their stories and benefiting from each others’ skills. 

First CRC members have learned that it’s important to work with people, not for them. People experiencing homelessness have challenges, but they also have skills and experience.

First CRC members emphasized that one thing they learned from the garden project was that it’s important to work with people, not for them. People experiencing homelessness have challenges, but they also have skills and experience. Many of them had garden and building experience, and some talked about the gardens they once had, when they had their own home. They were proud of the garden and took responsibility to make sure that it was maintained. 

Members of First CRC Toronto serve chili at the event hosted by the Toronto Union for the Homeless at Allen Gardens.

The challenges faced by homeless and underhoused people have taught them how to be resilient and resourceful, and how to support each other, Rika pointed out. They have an ability to look out for each other and create a sense of interdependence and community that others can learn from. That concept was underlined at another event held by the newly formed Toronto Union for the Homeless on National Housing Day in November 2023 in Allen Gardens, an encampment in downtown Toronto. With other members of the Roehampton Friendlies, members of First CRC provided and served chili for 80 people. At the end of the meal, as they were cleaning up, they served the last helpings of chili to a hungry family of four. In conversation, they found out that the family did have housing, but were struggling to afford to eat. When another man came along hoping for a meal, they witnessed the father give his portion of chili to the homeless man. It was one of many humbling experiences for those volunteers; it reminded them of the necessity of helping others with a humble and open attitude, and the importance of educating themselves on housing issues, both as a steering committee and as a congregation. 

Both were a key factor in creating helping relationships and in partnering with people in the community, in social service organizations, and in municipal government. Various members of First CRC attended forums and conferences and community information sessions. In turn, the Roehampton Friendlies then organized education sessions for their own congregations. These opportunities strengthened First CRC’s relationships with local churches, and increased their understanding of the issues and their ability to advocate in meaningful ways without competing with other organizations or getting in the way and jeopardizing the status of marginally housed individuals in terms of their other supports. Through their involvement with the shelter in particular, and homelessness issues more broadly, they learned the importance of seeing homeless people not only as people with problems, but as individuals with dignity who have much to offer. One thing that really helped in their effort to understand homeless and underhoused people – and help without doing more harm – happened when a client of the shelter began attending First CRC. 

“If you haven’t experienced homelessness, it can be very hard to figure out how best to help,” shared Marius Sinclair, a member of First CRC. “This man was very competent and helped us to understand how to approach helping in a way that would be effective and respectful.” Marius also observed that “at times in this work we’ve had to have a thick skin and remember that it’s not about us.”

The Roehampton shelter closed in June 2023, but the STHC at First CRC continues to live into their mandate regarding housing and homelessness issues in Toronto: to be able to respond to needs as they arise, to educate ourselves, to be a voice in the city seeking justice for this group of sisters and brothers.” They will do this by continuing to collaborate with other churches, charities, and government organizations to address issues around the lack of affordable and supportive housing, refugees and asylum seekers, food security, and poverty. “When you are doing something practical and concrete, you gain the credibility to speak to the issues and to be an advocate,” First CRC member and STHC team member, Jackie Van Veen, observed. They also plan to participate in the annual Coldest Night of the Year walk, are considering starting a “Little Free Pantry” in front of the church (a spot for people to give and take food items), and aim to stay involved in the Welcome Basket program – and any other opportunities God puts in their path! 

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