Lucio Abbruzzese, centre beside the bag, and the Street Patrol team prepare for another Wednesday evening ministering to the homeless. At right, a volunteer gives a food package to a man in need. Photos courtesy Street Patrol

Street Patrol hasn’t taken pandemic hiatus

By 
  • September 6, 2020

With the needs of the less fortunate exasperated in so many ways by COVID-19, volunteers with the summer Street Patrol ministry have continued providing meals to those living on the streets of downtown Toronto.

Hands filled with prepared food and other necessities, volunteers with the multi-parish effort that originated with St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street met each Wednesday evening on the church’s steps in July and August for a brief orientation before heading out to distribute goods to the homeless.

Jean-Pierre Fernandes, who has been helping lead the ministry for the past 23 years, says that due to concerns about outbreaks at shelters, limited housing and social distancing restrictions, the needs of the homeless have never been greater.

“This is probably one of the most intense years that we’ve seen in terms of people who are homeless,” said Fernandes, who has a background in social work. “We’re seeing a lot more drug use and mental health issues. I don’t think there are more (homeless) people, but that there’s maybe fewer services available to them. I think people are just forced onto the street which is really challenging to see.”

Now in its 25th year, the initiative continues to draw between 10 and 40 volunteers on a weekly basis despite the global pandemic. Participants go out and purchase their own food items and prepare care packages for distribution and break off into teams for the patrol that usually lasts from two to three hours.

Street Patrol leader Lucio Abbruzzese says due to the decrease in human traffic in the downtown core during COVID-19, the homeless community has not been able to rely on the generosity of passersby and has become more visible to volunteers patrolling the streets.

The initiative has implemented a few modifications based on public health guidelines, including wearing masks and social distancing. Other than that, Abbruzzese says not much has changed other than the need to perhaps make more of an effort to personally connect with those in need.

“It’s a bit different wearing masks because they can’t see our full face so it kind of dehumanizes the feel in a small way,” said Abbruzzese, who has been running the initiative since it started in 1995. “The spirit of Street Patrol is not just about the food, it’s more about actually talking with the homeless. The food lets us in. Not everyone wants to talk but we go by foot so we can approach the homeless at their level.”

A number of regular volunteers have taken a pass due to health concerns during the pandemic, but several first-timers have stepped up to fill their roles. Among them is Trisanna Lanson, who with her teenage children began serving in August. With her 19-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter’s regular musical extra-curricular activities paused due to COVID-19, Lanson says Street Patrol has helped to fill a void in their normally very active lives and re-enforced important family values.

“My kids said they want to do it again,” said Lanson. “They helped me to prepare and give out all the food. I feel it was a good lesson for them to see that a lot of people are still in need. Even though there are a lot of people richer than us there are a lot of people with less, so we have to be grateful to God for everything we have.”

The ministry started when as a young man Abbruzzese had a conversion experience after being away from the Church for some time. He started going to Mass frequently, embracing the sacraments and reading his Bible, but still felt something was missing. He wanted to help people.

“I looked in my parish bulletin and saw the Office of Catholic Youth was running a sandwich  program which would later become Street Patrol,” said Abbruzzese, who teaches religion at Toronto’s Michael Power-St. Joseph High School. “I showed up on a Wednesday in 1995 and I haven’t stopped yet. I basically took it over soon after and have been running it ever since.”

While the program is scheduled to wrap for the year this month, depending on the needs of the homeless community as the city heads toward this unprecedented first winter with COVID-19, Abbruzzese says they may consider continuing the program in some form during the colder months. Whether formally or informally participants say they will do their best to continue the culture of giving and serving the less fortunate all year round.

“If we see people outside the grocery store we’ll offer them the opportunity to find them some food,” said Fernandes. “I live downtown and I usually try to travel around with socks in hand so I can hand them off to people in need.”

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