© Zora Zebic 2016
I was 15, homeless and hadn’t eaten in 3 days. I could feel my body consuming the little bit of fat I’d stored. At 5’7″ weighing in at 110 pounds when I’d run away, I knew I wouldn’t survive long without food. My initial attempts at panhandling met the blank looks of strangers and equalled the emptiness in my outstretched hand.
A homeless boy told me of a soup kitchen. I’d never heard of this type of organization, but with wings sprouting from my tired feet I’d raced to the place to knock on the door. I had felt paralyzed by the words of the priest.
“We only serve men. Women have other ways of making money.” With the breath bashed out of my lungs I could only stand there staring at the door he’d slammed.
I did the only thing I could think to do. I determinedly walked the dozen or so blocks back to downtown and entered the dreaded variety store. Feared because the owner, who I will call Jack, had a reputation for beating senseless anyone who robbed him. I think that was merely a rumour started because he hated the parking meters the city put in front of his side street store and he despised the meter maids he said always hovered nearby.
With boldness, I said to him, “I’m starving, and I don’t want to steal from you. Can you please give me some food.” He answered, “I ain’t no charity.” I said I’m certain there was desperation in my voice, “I know but I’ve been to the charity, and they won’t give me anything.”
He came around the counter, and I feared he was about to toss me into the road. Instead, he grabbed a can of baked beans from the shelf and handed it to me. Delighted I said, “Would you be able to open the can for me?” He looked at me to then say, “My can opener is at home.” I pointed to the can openers he had for sale on the wall. Wordlessly he opened my can and pushed the lid back.
He shoved the can across the counter to me and asked, “What are you going to eat it with?” I held up two fingers and smiled. He pulled out a plastic spoon from beneath his sales counter and handed it to me. I’d never seen such a thing and said to him, “I never knew they made them in plastic. I’ll wash it and bring it back to you.”
“Get out and don’t come back.” he snarled. I will always thank God for leading me to my Good Samaritan and his can of beans.
© Zora Zebic 2016
Can love understand
The smooth pearl in his hand,
Appearing alluring and grand,
Began as a rough grain of sand?
© Zora Zebic 2016
Inside my silken cocoon, I cozy in a fetal position.
I feel the suns rays probe my gossamer coverlet in attempt to kiss me deeply.
I am still in childhood and do not understand this attraction, so I giggle in response.
The sun persists, and I will grow big and burst forth despite the comfort of this womb.
In my escape, I will become the tasty scape, a tasty morsel for another.
© Zora Zebic 2016
I’d been dating him for a few months and was getting used to canoe trips, camping and reuniting with Mother Nature. I say reuniting, and that is a curious way to put it when I didn’t know then how much of a connection I had with her!
We were on the way to Point Pelee National Park with our big, banana yellow canoe on the roof of the old, white Chevy Astro Van when a highway cop stopped us. The policeman asked, “Do you know what speed you were going?” Barry answered, “Yes, I was 10 over.”
Peering in the window at me, the cop asked me, “What should I do? Should I give him the lowest fine or hit him as hard as I can?” I asked, “Is there a third option, none of the above?”
The cop laughed at that and said, “You are one lucky man to have a wife like that. The guy I stopped before you is not too happy. His wife told me to hit him as hard as I could. I buried him in tickets.” Laughing heartily the cop started to walk away, then stopped to throw over his shoulder, “The sky is great today for canoeing. You folks have a great day!”
© Zora Zebic 2016
“Is there a reason your desk is always so cluttered?” This question has been asked so many times I have developed a standard answer, “This way I know where everything is with the bonus that nobody else can find anything.”
I don’t enjoy the clutter. It is agitating to see the piles grow into seemingly never-ending mini mountains of sacrificial tree remains. Still, I wouldn’t trade my existence for anyone else’s.
17 years ago I founded a homeless day shelter. At least 5 days a week you will find me cooking, serving meals or washing pots, pans and dishes alongside a group of very dedicated souls who also love to help the homeless. I am also the primary mediator when the need calls. At random times moments, like now, you may find me sitting at my desk.
More importantly than an organized desk, I am blessed to have a purpose in life.
© Zora Zebic 2016
Huddled around his feet, we sat in awe of the spectacle of his uniform. He was the oldest boy of the family. His parents had taken my brother and me in as foster children, and we were meeting the legendary ‘almost adult’ brother for the first time.
His uniform looked the same as the ones the Canadian soldiers wore on television, so the reality of the rank of Cadet was lost on us. To us, we were sitting at the feet of a real live soldier!
He said, “I want to teach all of you kids one important lesson I have learned.” Eager to absorb this treasured gift we had all pressed in closer lest any single word would slip past us. “If anyone ever does anything to upset you or hurt you,” he continued, “don’t get angry, get even!”
I used his sage advice not long after. The younger boys, my brother in tow, convinced me to crawl up the ladder onto the roof of the house and tear off roofing tiles. They wanted to make a rooftop for their tree-house, and if I were to do this task, they would allow me into their boys-only structure.
I’d been caught by the foster father, and all of the boys had denied any part of it. I took the punishment, recalling the advice of the Cadet, all the while plotting my revenge.
The next day I snuck a canning jar from the basement out to the field to gather some of the many harmless garden snakes. My filled jar in hand I stole back into the house and made my way silently to the bedroom closet of the foster mother. Placing the Mason jar far back into the shadows, I removed the lid and quietly left the house!
© Zora Zebic 2016
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