It was a March evening at the Out of the Cold men’s shelter at Grace Presbyterian Church. The guys were just settling in for the night. Volunteers had given them bedding and pillows for their cots, and served them hot coffee and a warm meal.
As was often the custom, some of them had come to the lobby before bed to chat with volunteers. We had all just learned that Saint John native Stompin’ Tom Connors had died that day.
Some of the men were old enough to remember his early years in the city, and I listened to them swap stories about seeing him in shops and on the streets.In particular I remember them talking about Connors playing guitar and singing on a bench in Queen Square.
Stompin’ Tom grew up poor in Saint John. His family was evicted from apartments for not paying rent, and his teenage mother sometimes stole or begged for food. As a struggling young musician traveling the country, he would sometimes get arrested for vagrancy, and welcome the warm place to sleep at night.
Though Connors eventually became rich and famous, perhaps these guys could relate to a man who had once struggled like they did; or maybe they were they were just like everyone else in Saint John proud of a native son who hit it big. This night was typical of many I’ve spent at the shelter over the last three years.
Yes, volunteers are mainly responsible for things like signing in the men, setting up the cots, and preparing and serving the meals. But it’s a relaxed and social environment. Over coffee and bowls of chili, we’ve talked about everything from religion, politics, good movies and books.
We still take a professional approach to the operation of the shelter, and don’t pry into personal lives of the men who stay there. But this intimate setting helps us – me, anyway – see these men as regular people, in a way that’s often not possible when they’re asking for spare change on street corners.
I don’t mean to gloss over the very real challenges these guys face – mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, severe poverty caused by chronic unemployment or family break up – or suggest that a warm meal and a good night’s sleep in a welcoming, respectful environment will solve all their problems.
They need long-term housing options, mental health and addictions services, a job or education and training programs to help them get one. But getting them out of the cold on a winter night is a good first step.
When Stompin’ Tom Connors died last March, his family asked people across the country to donate to a local food bank or homeless shelter in his name. Out of the Cold takes financial donations, but needs people to give of their time too. It operates seven days a week for three months, and needs dozens of volunteers to cover evening and overnight shifts and prepare food.
Because I enjoyed being at the shelter, I often forgot I was providing a valuable service to someone. One night, as I was on my way out the door, one of the men called out, “Thank you for the work you do.” I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled and said, “No problem. See you next week.”
For more information about volunteering with Out of the Cold, please contact Jillian Driscoll by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org