Michael Swan holds one of the first copies of his new book, Out of the Cold: A Caring History Photo by Evan Boudreau

Out of the Cold: A history of caring

  • November 14, 2015

Editor’s note: Launched almost 30 years ago as a project at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School, the Out of the Cold program is a remarkable story of Christian outreach that last winter provided food and shelter to more than 12,000 homeless men and women. That success is celebrated in a just-released book by Catholic Register associate editor Michael Swan. In this excerpt from Out of the Cold: A history of caring, Swan recounts how the program found a home in one downtown Toronto church.

It’s odd that Stevie Cameron is afraid of Sister Sue Moran. The veteran journalist has tangled with prime ministers, governors general, the RCMP, the editorial board of the Globe and Mail. She’s been subpoenaed by a Royal Commission and called to testify before the Canadian House of Commons’ ethics committee. She’s written books and feature articles about political corruption, grisly murders, drug culture, shadowy business deals, racism in the justice system, racism in our prisons, suicide and sexual affairs among Canada’s rich and powerful.

The list of people who have threatened to sue and silence Cameron is longer than this book.

There is no documented evidence of her ever backing down.

But the sight of five-foot-two, grey-haired, blue-eyed, smiling Sister Sue padding across a crowded room in rubber-soled shoes makes Cameron quake.

“I run when I see her,” Cameron told me. “I think, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to change my life.’ ”

It’s not that Cameron doesn’t love and admire Sister Sue.

“She’s so ferocious,” said Cameron. “I don’t believe the Out of the Cold program in Toronto and the Out of the Cold programs we fostered all over the country after that would have happened without her push. I have a huge admiration for her.”

But a good deal of Out of the Cold wouldn’t have happened without Cameron either.

In 1992 Cameron was on the Session — a kind of governing council in the Presbyterian world — which oversaw St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on King Street, next door to Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto’s downtown core. The senior minister, Rev. Cameron Brett, had proposed the church take part in this novel response to increasing numbers of homeless men visible around downtown Toronto.

At that point in her career Cameron was a formidable presence — a successful writer who appeared regularly on CBC, whose picture appeared with her columns in the Globe and Mail. So when she backed her minister’s call for St. Andrew’s to open up for Out of the Cold, one might have expected nods and bright-eyed agreement all around the table. But that’s not what happened.

St. Andrew’s is an historic church — as pretty and perfect an example of Victorian romanesque revival architecture as exists anywhere. It is not a church with a history of embracing change or innovation. In 1925 it was the bulwark of opposition to melding Methodists and Presbyterians to form the United Church of Canada. St. Andrew’s exists to preserve a heritage and a tradition. Brett’s proposal seemed to put their beautiful, historic building at risk to join in with Anglicans and Catholics inviting drunks, addicts and paranoid schizophrenics to take over their social space, until now reserved for kindly grandmothers who served tea and Scottish biscuits on Sunday afternoons. The church was not built as a hostel or an asylum and neither the congregation nor the Session nor the senior minister are qualified social workers.

What about insurance? It’s already near impossible and ruinously expensive to insure a building put together with irreplaceable materials by long-dead craftsmen. If the Session was going to be so cavalier with its heritage building, the insurance company would be quite justified in withdrawing coverage.

“A lot of people didn’t want it,” Cameron recalled. “Every possible roadblock was put there.”

It didn’t seem to matter that the homeless were already sleeping on the steps leading up to the grand, hand-carved wooden doors of the church. At a certain point in those meetings, as she had to respond to objection after objection, Cameron did something that even today, 25 years later, deeply embarrasses her. She cried.

Feminine tears are not a weapon with any effect or advantage in newsroom battles. But the Session was a little more soft-hearted than the over-caffeinated, know-it-all editors. The Session eventually said yes, sort of — on a temporary, trial basis.

“Because we embarrassed them into it,” said Cameron.

“They could come in and sleep but there was to be no food,” was the first deal. Cameron kept wheedling. “Then they could come in and sleep and they could have a cup of coffee and a cookie, but there was to be no food — just a cup of coffee.”

Cameron negotiated to expand the menu to include tea.

“Just grinding it out,” is how she recalled the fight.

And then she was worried. What if nobody came?

“Everybody was very nervous,” she said. “It was like giving a party and wondering whether anybody would come. We were terribly nervous.”

But word was out and that mid-fall Monday afternoon the homeless were lined up outside the side doors of the church well before the 7 p.m. opening.

Cameron and her team had clandestinely expanded the menu beyond the conceded cookie with a couple of bags of muffins and so on from Tim Hortons. This meagre fare was twinned with the maximum output of the Scottish grandmothers’ coffee urn.

To make it all seem just a little more niggardly, the room had been set up with mattresses but no chairs. Men who had spent their day tramping the streets in the cold and the wet were given the opportunity to sit on a mattress on the floor with a cup of watery coffee and wait for lights out. And then Cameron discovered the kindness that exists among poor and desperate people. Deeply embarrassed, she walked among the men on their vinyl-covered, foam mattresses.

“One of them said, ‘Is this all? Is this it?’ ” she recalled. “He said this to me and I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I said, ‘We had such a fight to get this open and this is all they are going to let us do.’ He jumped to his feet and put his arms around me and said, ‘It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. We really appreciate this.’ ”

But it wasn’t okay. Cameron was certain of that. Not because there weren’t enough calories offered to hungry men or because the quality of the coffee was so poor, but because what was given was resentfully given out of duty. It was the gracelessness of treating the poor as a danger and an alien presence.

Sister Sue showed up that first night with another of the sisters from Our Lady’s Missionaries. The sisters did not regard themselves as bound by the decisions of the St. Andrew’s Church Session. Sister Sue wasn’t going to allow the homeless to choose between their fear of institutions and their fear of sleeping somewhere outside where the cops, property owners or gangs of dangerous young men might object.

“I saw her over in the corner with the other nun and they were going through their purses,” said Cameron. “I thought, ‘What are they doing?’ Then I saw Sister Susan go to our phone in the kitchen. Then about 15 minutes later we had Pizza Pizza at the door.”

The cash in two nuns’ purses doesn’t add up to much. Sister Sue and her co-conspirator were not able to pay for very many pizzas or any toppings. When the delivery guy was gone, Sister Sue went at the thin disks of pizza with a knife to produce miniature triangles that were more symbol than sustenance.

“I’ll never forget it, these guys sitting on mattresses eating their little triangle,” said Cameron. “We all looked at each other. We were so embarrassed, so ashamed. We defied the Session and we started feeding them the next week. After that, food became a whole thing. The Session was grouchy about it.”

(Out of the Cold is published by Catholic Register Books. Copies are available online at www.catholicregister.org/crbooks or by calling 416-947-3410 ext. 401.)

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