Homeless, poor not forgotten on Christmas Day

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • December 18, 2006

Toronto Good Shepherd CentreTORONTO - For most people in our society, Christmas is a joyful time spent with family. But for the homeless, it's not a celebration they can relate to.

"Christmas is so commercialized now and everywhere you look there's a happy home or businesses telling you, you need (this or) that for the holidays," said Brother David Lynch, director of Good Shepherd Centre in Toronto. He said those messages are hard for the homeless who are more concerned with finding shelter for the night.

"It's a time where they may feel God has abandoned them. That they have nothing."

Since 1963 the Brothers of the Good Shepherd have opened their doors 365 days a year to those in need, including major holidays.

Lynch expects more than 1,000 homeless and low-income people to come to the Good Shepherd Centre for a restaurant-style Christmas roast beef meal.

Other agencies provide services on Christmas Day, so in order not to duplicate services the Good Shepherd decided to move its Christmas meal to Boxing Day, said spokesperson Aklilu Wendafrew.

"We made that change a couple of years ago to be available and respond to the need. It's what the homeless need, not what we need," said Lynch.

The centre will still open on Christmas for an all-day drop-in with regular meal times at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

The centre is inundated with people wanting to volunteer time on Christmas and Boxing Day, so serving meals and distributing small gifts is never a problem, said Lynch.

Marina Frescura and her four grown children have volunteered at Good Shepherd Centre on Boxing Day for the past four years. They have made this a family tradition after Frescura's husband passed away from a sudden heart attack. This prompted her to reach out and volunteer.

"For a moment it took us away from our own painful cocoon," said the 60-year-old linguistics professor at York University. "My kids and I needed to put things into perspective, that there was other kinds of pain and we were not the only one's (suffering).

"The bottom line is we did it for selfish reasons," Frescura admits.

But it's the little improvements she sees in the clients she serves that keep her coming back. Now Frescura volunteers every Saturday morning.

Another program for the homeless is Out of the Cold, a parish-based soup kitchen and overnight shelter. However, the two Catholic Church programs which were to open on Christmas Eve and Christmas will stay closed.

Blessed Sacrament Church on was to open Christmas Eve, but Holy Blossom Temple, a synagogue, will open on Blessed Sacrament's behalf to ensure the homeless have a place to go.

The busy Christmas Eve Mass schedule interrupts the normal functioning of the program, said Lawrie Krain, Out of the Cold director for Blessed Sacrament.

"There's so much activity going on there wouldn't be any room. A lot of us care about it, but we can't do anything about it," said Krain.

At The Register's press time Shannon McGillivray, Dixon Hall Out of the Cold program manager, was still trying to find a space to open Dec. 25 on behalf of St. Brigid's Church.

St. Francis Table is a Capuchin-run program that opened its doors 19 years ago on Christmas Day and has kept serving turkey dinners and giving out small gifts ever since. This year they received 40 volunteer requests to help but were only able to accept 15.

For homeless youth Christmas can be a particularly difficult time of year. At Canada's largest youth shelter, Covenant House, staff try to create a home-like atmosphere for the young people they serve between the ages of 16 and 22.

While returning home isn't usually an option for most of the young people served by Covenant House, one 22-year-old who lives in the long-term care program and who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction plans to go home for Christmas Day.

"I actually don't find (Christmas time) that difficult, I think I've kind of toughened up so that it's not that bad any more," said Brad, who requested his last name not be used.

Covenant House does see an increase of young people who use its facilities during this time of year, said spokesperson Rose Cino.

"Even if you came from a home that wasn't safe or you weren't wanted, all kids are looking for that feeling of the Christmas season," said Cino.

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