Br. John Corriveau, retired bishop of Nelson, B.C., hands a hot take-out meal to Chico, a regular at St. Francis Table. Michael Swan

Helping hands in time of crisis

  • March 28, 2020

B. and Toby have been camping in a green tent on a strip of muddy ground between an on-ramp to the Don Valley Parkway and a fence near St. Paul’s Basilica in downtown Toronto for a couple of weeks. 

Normally, they would have been ordered to move along. But with COVID-19 on the loose, the city had other matters to think about.

Being ignored isn’t much of an advantage as far as Toby is concerned, and the stress of being homeless in the middle of a pandemic shows on his face.

“It’s just making things really hard for us, shutting down all the services we rely on,” he said.

A block away stands The Good Shepherd, where under normal circumstances they could get a hot meal, use the washroom, talk to a social worker, even get a change of clothes. 

“We’ve shut down our drop-in and meal program and moved to a bagged lunch, take-away service,” said Good Shepherd executive director Br. David Lynch.

Shutting down the dining room, clothing room and associated services was a tough call, but in an environment “where hygiene is difficult at the best of times,” Lynch felt he had little choice.

The Good Shepherd began planning for a major health emergency at the beginning of February and even obtained some extra supplies to ensure it would be ready. But the planning ran into some hard realities. A place that relies on 8,000 volunteers a year is now running on a skeleton staff. 

When not fielding calls, Lynch wanders through the building cleaning counters, door handles and other touch points so the housekeeping staff can concentrate on laundry and making beds. However, Lynch doesn’t want to encourage a public which has been told to stay at home to show up for volunteer assignments. They would have to be screened for COVID-19 risk factors.

The Good Shepherd has extended the hours of its overnight shelter, which now runs from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m., with a hot meal served at 6 p.m. Homeless men over 65 or otherwise health compromised are being allowed to stay indoors 24 hours.

Lynch is worried that people in Toronto’s homeless population will get sick and die.

“They are the most vulnerable in our community,” he said. “They are so health-compromised at the best of times that I am afraid we will lose some of them.”

Across town, in his electric wheelchair and a cane at his side, wearing a paper mask, Chico was first in line Sunday for a hot, takeout meal from St. Francis Table. He’s a regular at the west-end restaurant for the poor. He counts on the Franciscan mission for more than nutrition.

“I love this place. I always pray in here,” he said.

St. Francis Table went to takeout-only service along with all other restaurants in the city, and is putting out more than 50 meals a day despite fewer volunteers. St. Francis Table animator Br. John Frampton expects that number to grow.

Chico classes St. Francis Table as an essential service. “It’s important for everybody. Everybody is hungry,” he said.

Chef Tony Riverone acknowledges it is risky serving meals to unhealthy people in the middle of a pandemic.

“Nobody expects this. It is what it is,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. We’re still helping people out there.”

Emeritus bishop of Nelson, B.C,. John Corriveau said feeding people in a dangerous time is just a way of responding to Christ.

“The living body of Christ is at the door,” he said.

At St. Ann’s Parish, pastor Fr. Wilson Andrade has thrown himself into helping out at the parish food bank, which serves 200 families and individuals.

“Like Jesus said, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ ” said the Holy Cross missionary from India.

Andrade joined in with a dozen of the food bank’s well established cadre of volunteers to bag non-perishable groceries for individual pick-up.

This is where the Church is alive, Andrade said.

“Social distancing is not community avoiding,” he said.

The Our Lady of Lourdes Food Bank was also staying open. Five Jesuits completing studies at Regis College filled in for some of the regular volunteers. Wearing masks and gloves, they packed perishable and non-perishable food into take-away boxes to be handed to people lined up at the front door of the tiny food bank at the bottom of an apartment tower. When it opened on March 18, 30 families were waiting.

Caring for the community means caring first for the weakest and most vulnerable, said Andrade.

“They are always invisible. We need to take care of them,” he said.

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