“Want a pair of socks?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said and smiled.
I took a pair out of my bag and handed it to him. “There’s a Tim Horton’s card inside and a power bar. My name’s Esther.”
“Matt? As in Matt and Jessica?”
He stared at me in disbelief and began to cry. “Yes. But Jess went back home to live with her parents,” he mumbled. “I miss her so much.”
A few months ago, I was volunteering with the Progressive Outreach Van at St.Stephen’s. We were having a slow day, so I decided to tour the area on my bike and see if I could drum up business. The outreach worker asked me to keep an eye out for a couple named “Matt” and “Jessica” who were on the list for housing.
In a pedestrian underpass, I saw their shopping cart and the outline of two bodies in sleeping bags. Jessica stuck out her head and greeted me warmly when I said hello. I put muffins and cereal bars in their cart and let them know we’d be around until two. She thanked me and said they’d drop by, but they didn’t.
I saw Jessica again panhandling on Christmas Eve. I was driving home after the late service and had to circle back to talk to her. I rolled down my window to give her a pair of socks and was instantly chilled by the frigid air. I invited her and Matt to the Wednesday Lunch Club’s Christmas dinner. “The directions to the church are inside,” I said. She called me an angel and said they’d come, but they didn’t.
Now here was Matt with tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Let’s go inside and sit down,” I said. “Want a coffee or hot chocolate? Something to eat?”
It was the first meal he’d had all day. He reminisced about Jessica and how the people who ran the hostel loved them and would often give them a two-for-one deal. But today had been hard; people were unkind. He prayed that something good would happen. Now it did and he was grateful.
I watched him enjoy his food. His hands were swollen and his lips chapped, but he had beautiful teeth. So many people I meet who are homeless have rotten and missing teeth. “I don’t do drugs,” he said and pushed up his sleeves. His strong unblemished forearms looked like my son’s.
“I want to call Jess but I can’t. I won’t or she’ll come back in a minute, and that wouldn’t be good. Not for her.” He teared up again. “I’m sorry.”
I asked him about his family. He told me his father had disowned him and his mother died of a heart attack at fifty-six. “She was my best friend.”
I gave him money for transit and the hostel. (Burnaby doesn’t have a homeless shelter.) “This is good. I’ll get work at Labour Ready tomorrow, then I’ll be set.” He looked me in the eyes, “I thank you. My mother thanks you,” he said. “I want to stay in touch and let you know how I do.”
“I’m at St. Stephen’s on Sundays. You don’t need to come to church. Come afterwards for coffee and cookies. I’ll be there.”
“I like coffee and cookies. And church, too.”
I hugged him goodbye–like a mother hugs a son.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
you are mine.
–Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)
* * *
Since 1981, Progressive Housing Society, outreach workers like Nicole (left) have provided support services to adults living with mental health issues or facing homelessness. They are a registered non-profit charity, working with over 250 clients in the Burnaby area. “We believe in empowering people to live well. That’s why we help clients with their basic needs while also helping them to live as independently as possible in the community. Access to food, shelter, and healthcare is essential, but we also help clients to develop and maintain life-skills. All of our programs are designed to support clients with their individual needs and preferences in mind.” –Progressive Housing Society
Burnaby’s Society to End Homelessness, which includes organizations such as Progressive Housing Society, has been urging our city, provincial and federal leaders to work together to provide impoverished citizens of Burnaby more than an emergency shelter which is only available in extreme weather conditions.