Photo © Ernest Barry Furlonger 2016
We had opened our new centre for the homeless on June 1st, 16 years ago. The winter to follow was a mean one.
We received a small amount of funding to hire a team to work with homeless people living on the streets. A local charity offered to provide the payroll service and did so for a few years – I eventually learned how simple the process was and took over the payroll on my own.
I insisted we hire only people who had recently experienced homelessness as they would be in closest contact with each other. They would know where the other folks were calling ‘home.’ Some of these places were a wooded area affectionately called “The Bunkers,” and particular dumpsters, emptied on regular schedules. Abandoned cars (usually the property of the homeless but without gas to operate them), abandoned buildings, crawl spaces under porches, unheated garages or sheds behind homes and both underground and multi-level parking lots.
The City of Windsor had received numerous complaints from the patrons of the downtown library. The most common complaint was “fear” of the homeless. People had to walk from the parking lot into the back entrance or around to the front. In response, the vents that poured out heat behind the building were sealed off by a chain-link fence enclosure.
An employee of the City of Windsor Social Services had learned a few industrious homeless men had tunnelled and shored up a cavern under a group of bushes next to city hall. One of the men had experience working in the nickel industry, and they had built a fantastic genuine Man Cave!
The next day the men found a working crew bulldozing the site. They had uprooted the bushes and filled in the cave. All of their possessions were gone – the men lost their photo albums, identification and other personal items buried perhaps. They never did find out.
A tarmacked parking lot took the place of the grassy area. (1) “Don’t it always seem to go…”
I am confident the welfare employee went to bed with the self-assurance she had done her part to secure and beautify the city.
Our patrollers were going out each evening locating the homeless and providing sleeping bags, warm socks, hats, scarves, and mitts. Orders were taken for footwear when needed, and special requests were put out to our Union friends to help us provide the much-needed boots.
Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for a homeless person to wake up to find someone has taken their shoes or boots off their feet while they were sleeping. The perpetrators think it is funny or they believe they are doing the community a service to “punish the homeless.”
If these people could witness the aftermath of their cruelty, I am sure they would have a change of heart.
A client rushed into the centre one morning to tell me a homeless lady had frozen to death. Denied shelter because she had been drinking, she was without options. She sat in a doorway and froze to death.
We would not shut our doors, and we would stay open the duration of the winter. Somebody had to care.
We would have to deal with the brutal reality of charity competition and government micromanaging for making this decision – but that is another story.
I was selling roses in the downtown bars. It was the way I made money to buy the items I could not purchase with the government funding – things like computers which were essential tools in the fast enveloping “information/electronic age” – as I sat down at my desk I heard a terrible moaning from the back of the room.
Bill would later become one of our employees but that night he was not at all well. He had injured his feet but would not go to the hospital.
I went over to Bill and demanded he let me see his feet – sometimes it is a good thing to be a motherly middle-aged woman!
Bill pulled the covers away, and I saw he had no skin on the bottom of his feet. Bill told me the morning before he had woken to find someone had stolen his boots. He said it was surreal, as he had looked back seeing his skin clinging to the ice on the sidewalks.
He was afraid to go to the hospital. I assured him they would not judge him or cause him to suffer more and with that, I called him an ambulance.
Bill was sent back to us the next day with bandaged feet, and after a few days, he entered a homeless shelter.
The big problem was Bill could not shower unless they could furnish a clean area. He needed a home and attendance from homecare nurses.
(2) The Windsor Star featured Bill in a story published on Friday, February 28, 2003.
In that story, Bill recounted how he had almost died trapped in a truck’s trash compactor! The danger was real, and that was why he had joined our team and happily searched the dumpsters.
Our patrollers worked the downtown core searching alleys, streets and other locations for the homeless trapped outside until the winter 2008/2009 when we learned the government would no longer provide funding for our much-needed service.
In fact, we lost all funding for all of our programs for the homeless. The survival of our agency from then until now has been a story of despair, faith, and many blessings and once again that is yet another story to be told!
God has now blessed Street Help and our homeless folks again!
We are putting out the call to hire a team leader and patrollers to search the streets of Windsor for winter 2015/2016 and hopefully for the duration of time homelessness exists in Windsor.
We still have some of the first coats worn by our patrollers! We will need to order more, but it touched my heart to once again hold the vivid orange colour with our Street Help logo!
We are also asking for a van. Perhaps a car dealership will provide one in exchange for a tax receipt?!
With an orange coat of paint and our logo it will be easy to transport sleeping bags and other warm items – it will save a lot of footwork for our patrollers who in the past had to go back to the centre for the things to then meet back up with the person in need.
It would be nice to also have a big thermos – like those Tim Horton’s rents out – to keep full of hot cocoa! That cup’pa warm is a blessing.
I recall the childhood memory of the toboggan hill and the building with the fireplace where they served free cocoa. I remember how the warmth of paper cup felt so good to my little cold, cold fingers.
© Zora Zebic 2015
(1) Joni Mitchell lyrics
(2) Patrols help homeless survive, Windsor Star Friday, February 28, 2003
© 2015 Zora Zebic