On a bitterly cold winter night just before Christmas, I participated in something I have never done before. I joined a group of volunteers from Feed The Need in Toronto and handed out socks, warm clothes and food to some of the homeless people in the downtown core. The experience took me out of my middle-class comfort and forced me to look at homelessness as something other than a distant problem of relatively few unfortunate people.
After sorting and packing the pile of donations, we split up into small groups and headed out into the streets. Carrying a bag full of socks, winter hats and sweaters, I followed the lead of my son who is one of the founders of Feed the Need and who lectures on the issue of homelessness at Ryerson University in Toronto. He took us to areas where homeless people frequent – in parks, street corners and outside of homeless shelters.
I kept my apprehension to myself as we walked along the streets but inwardly, I was nervous. I had never done anything like this before and wasn’t sure I would know what to say or what to do.
It didn’t take long before we started meeting street people. It seemed to me that as we handed out clothes and food to one person, we attracted more people. Most of them asked for socks and hats and my supplies were quickly depleted.
My initial nervousness went away quickly. There was no time to be hesitant as we passed on clothing that seems so ordinary to most of us but can mean a world of difference to someone who hasn’t got a warm home to go to.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised at the gratitude and politeness of most of the people (predominantly men) that we met. It never occurred to me before that homeless people would have good manners. Shame on me.
Before that night, I had only thought of the homeless whenever I donated used clothing to the St. Vincent de Paul or when I (rarely) put a few coins in the St. Vincent de Paul box at church. If I encountered a street person along a downtown street, I barely gave them a glance and certainly didn’t stop to say hello.
As I kept handing things out and talking to the people who approached me, I stopped seeing them as “the homeless” and started to see them as my brothers and sisters; surprisingly similar, all of us broken in some way and all of us needing the love of another human being. We are not so different.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me,” (Matthew 25: 35-36) Jesus’ words greatly resonate when we minister to our homeless brothers and sisters where their lives are at: on the street. It is there that we can begin to understand their condition and so realize how to help and uplift them. On the street we can see Jesus whose humility and suffering continue in the lives of the homeless.
In Evangelii Gaudium, (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis writes: ” my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, ‘Give them something to eat.'”
It seems to me that our Holy Father is telling us that we need to step out of our comfort zone in order to reach out to those around us. Going out into the street that night was a great leap into the unknown for me but I’m thankful for the gift. There are valuable lessons waiting to be learned and many opportunities to love our neighbour when we summon the courage to allow ourselves to be led into experiences that challenge our way of thinking.
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