Nathan Dumlao,

Young eyes opened to brutality of homelessness

  • April 27, 2023

It’s easy to ignore what we do not see. For many, homelessness, poverty and addiction are hidden in someone else’s town or in a part of our own town that we shun. It’s only when we have the courage to “put out into the deep” that we can strip back people’s addictions and their current choices, to find that they too feel pain, hunger and loneliness, and only want to be treated as humans.

Recently, 17 school children and two teachers had the courage to spend two days on a street retreat in downtown Toronto with Dominican Friar Dominican Friar Prakash, Sarah Rudolph IBVM and myself. This column is written through the eyes and reflections of these retreatants.

“What impacted me the most on this retreat was hearing the story of Chimene who spoke to us of her life of addiction and prostitution. She was so open and vulnerable as she described the pain of being bullied at school as a child, and her descent into drugs, prostitution and homelessness. Then I experienced God’s presence as I listened to her journey over 15 years to become a sober, healthy and proud mother who was sitting in front of us telling her story.”

“When we had made the sandwiches and drinks, we went out onto the streets with our leader. Our group met a well-dressed woman who was walking the streets looking for her daughter who had been living on the streets for a while. She told us her daughter’s story, and how easy it is for someone from a good home to end up on the streets. She gave us her daughter’s description and name, and said that if we find her, tell her that her mother is looking for her and loves her. Somehow, I felt that there was some greater power that brought us to this grieving mother.”

“I spoke with many people that I normally think of as ‘sketchy’ or ‘creepy’, but they were really nice people. At one point a man was walking behind me, and I immediately became anxious, but when he caught up with me, he gave suggestions of where I could find more people who needed food. I never felt I explicitly had prejudices towards the homeless, but I saw how nervous I had been in just handing out a sandwich to someone and realized that I had some biases.”

“When we first arrived, we met a man who told us to be careful on the streets. The next day, when we were handing out sandwiches, we bumped into him in another part of downtown, and he told us that he had been praying for our safety all afternoon. I got very emotional, because I didn’t think he would remember us, but I realized how impactful one conversation can be. We gave him a sandwich, and in return he gave us psalm 91, ‘You who live in the shelter of the most high, will say to the Lord, “My God in whom I trust.” ’ This moment will stick with me forever.”

“I am not a religious person, but seeing the faith in all the people we gave food to, and how many said, ‘God bless you’ was so sweet. The homeless people I met were so nice, and listening to their stories I realized that each is a human being who needs our care.”

“When we visited Trinity Church, we saw the names of the homeless people who have died on the streets. It was chilling, but I realized that having their names on the wall means that they live on for years in our memories and are truly not forgotten. I always thought that you really had to mess up to get to the point of being homeless, but listening to people’s stories, I realize that it could happen to anyone. My eyes have been opened to see that homelessness is a brutal reality, and that when we say to someone, ‘May God keep you safe,’ it is our job to keep them safe, fed, and housed. God works through us.”

“At first, I was unsure and anxious and stayed within my bubble. However, on the second day I told myself that I had to push my boundaries and went out on the street with sandwiches despite the part of my brain that lived in fear. I then experienced God within myself, within the parts that overcame the fear. I learned their stories, and it gave us connection and value, even for just a few seconds or minutes. I realized that I had to keep not just my eyes open, but my heart too.”

Thank you to the teachers and students of Nicholson Catholic College. Welcome to the Church on the Street.

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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