The good shepherd on this evening, as on most evenings, is Brother Tom Liss, director of shelter and hospitality for the past dozen years.
“After a week of miserable weather, we wanted to do something special to help lift their spirits.’’
A break in the frigid temperatures has also been a Godsend. For the month of January, the facility had been running at 99.9 per cent capacity.
Across the city, as of Friday when the “census was last updated”, there were 1,805 men, 789 women, 525 youth and 748 family units occupying shelter beds, according to the city’s shelter website, with another 2,153 staying at city-supported motels. It’s unknown the number who were “sleeping rough”, although the city pegs that figure at about 450 nightly.
You’ve seen them, with their bundles and bags, even king-size mattresses spread across the sidewalk, over heating grates, beneath the overpasses.
“Can I sit on the stairs,’’ one young fellow asks a staffer. “That TV camera is scaring the s- – – out of me. My family can’t know I’m here.’’
“I’m here for the food, not the game,’’ says another bloke, hunkered over his plate.
“I’m a soccer fan, don’t know anything about football,’’ admits yet another.
Dressed in hoodies and toques, stripping off layers of clothes because many go about the streets wearing everything they own. Those who are actually staying at the premises are recognizable by their short sleeves and socked feet slipped into flip-flops. They just come down from upstairs, gathering in front a large-screen TV that, with speakers, has been donated by Rich Rabba, president of Rabba Fine Foods. The provisions have been sent over by vendors at the company’s 35 stores across the GTA.
The Rabba story is an immigrant-made-good story, founded by Rich’s father, who arrived in Canada in 1966 from the Middle East.
“To be honest, the idea of helping our fellow man is what motivated us to do this,’’ says Rabba. “There’s nothing that makes me any different from them, other than maybe luck.’’
Richard Zirgha is a refugee from Uganda. He arrived in Toronto a year ago. Actually, he landed in Vancouver where a good Samaritan gifted him $200. Put that together with the $250 in his pockets, travelled cross-country on the train, and headed straight for the Good Shepherd.
“Uganda is a beautiful country,’’ says the 35-year-old who trained as a mechanic back home, even ran his own garage. “But I’m gay. In Uganda, if they find out you’re gay, your life is over. You’ll end up dead. They found out, the police. I had to run, leave everything I owned behind.’’
Watching the wide-screen TV at the front of the dining hall, he tries hard to understand what’s going on. “This game, I’d never seen it before. I grew up playing hockey.’’
Vincent Cripps, 45, declares his loyalty to the CFL, not the NFL. He’s been drifting, from couch-surfing with friends to homeless, since 2014, when his wife died. “I’m a jack of all trades, always had a job before, a home. But the depression, you know? Everything just spiralled out of control.’’
This is his second night at Good Shepherd. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be on the street, love.”
Ken Harris, 54, from the Maritimes: Had his own place until recently, a unit in an Oshawa apartment building where he was employed as superintendent. “It didn’t work out.’’
Jeff Allen, 61: “I’m a hockey guy. Don’t even know who’s playing, to tell you the truth.’’
Homeless as of Feb. 1, when the rent money ran out.
So many sad stories, subsisting in the shadows, hard-scrabble.
And of course, a great many homeless are mentally ill – either because they started out that way, and ended up on the street, or the street got inside their head.
“Mental illness is prevalent,’’ says Brother Tom. “Sometimes I look around here and wonder if I’m at the emergency department of CAMH or Good Shepherd.’’
The facility has 95 beds – for men only – 25 of them designated for clients who are registered in the drug and alcoholic rehabilitation enhancement program. While alcohol is forbidden on the premises, the drunken aren’t turned away. “They don’t need to be sober,’’ says Brother Tom. “As long as they’re not disruptive.’’
Many are wait-listed for social housing. Between 50 and 60 per cent of residents are biding their time, waiting for permanent resettlement.
What they can’t do – as with all shelters, apart from drop-in centres – is while away the hours indoors, on-site. They’re turned out every morning at 8 a.m., so the building can be cleaned and prepared for the next wave of users. That’s why you see so many idle homeless shuffling around the area, congregating at nearby Moss Park.
The shelter operators aren’t being unkind but their resources only extend so far, while the need is ever-expanding. To convert the space into a 24/7 venue would require an extensive structural overhaul. “Which would mean less space for beds,’’ points out Brother Tom.
Originally, Good Shepherd, an undertaking of the St. John of God Brothers, ministered to men who were looking for housing and looking for jobs, often getting plucked for day labour. There’s not much of that anymore and their transience, the attendant inertia, has become deep-rooted.
“They can’t come and stay here forever though,” Brother Tom explains.
Fourteen consecutive nights is what’s allowed, before they’re “encouraged’’ to move on. At which point they’re shifted to the bottom of the priority list, with a minimum of 60 days before qualifying for the beds herein again.
Still, Good Shepherd does its best: a hot meal provided at 2 p.m. for everyone who drops by, registration for the night starting at 5:30 p.m., a substantial snack offered at 7 p.m..
It was estimated that Americans, who worship at the church of the NFL, would bet around $6 billion on Super Bowl LIII.
Who won? Who cares.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno