Good morning. My name is Margaret Vandenbroucke. I’ve been a member of this congregation for 18 years and I’m currently serving on the Board of Trustees.
I first encountered Leonard at the greeters’ table several years ago. I have to admit that he was a fearsome looking character with his long tangled hair, lurching gait and features that reminded me of an aboriginal mask. Leonard was a regular in Out of the Cold and though usually inebriated, he never became violent with others, at least in my experience. In the interests of a peaceful environment, I would tentatively approach him, say a few words to show my concern and listen. I seemed to have, or liked to think I had, a small calming effect on him. A couple of times when he was sober he told me about his home on Manitoulin Island, and about his brother, the carpenter who lived there. I discovered an intelligent and very sensitive person and realized I felt drawn to him. One time seeing him weaving along Bloor Street, I stopped to talk and heard that a friend, also living on the streets, had just died. He was obviously in more than usual pain and I expressed my genuinely felt sympathy. At the end of that season I overheard Leonard say that he didn’t expect he would make it through another summer. Sure enough the next November he didn’t reappear. For a long time I was afraid to ask his pal, Carl, about Leonard, fearing the worst. Finally this fall I summoned the courage and learned that he had returned to Manitoulin, had some work and was mostly not drinking. I can’t tell you the huge relief and even joy I felt in that moment. I realized that I truly cared what happened to Leonard and that a real, if mysterious, bond of empathy had developed between us despite the striking differences in our lives.
Looking back on my early life I can see that the desire to help those in need was there from the beginning. I remember wanting to reach out to John Henhawke, child of the only native family in town who came to school in shabby clothes and was consistently ignored by both students and teachers. But my natural reserve held me back. In my late teens summer jobs with the Children’s Aid Society gave expression to this urge to be of service. It was also a revelation to me, a child of relative affluence, of the hidden poverty that existed right under my nose.
Nurture also played a major role. My father, a small town lawyer, was a leader in community service organizations and in his church. He also practised legal aid long before it existed as public policy in Ontario. His sense of responsibility for community, respect for the law, and the fairness and concern shown in his dealings with everyone, were strong influences on me. These values also fuelled my growing anger at social inequities and injustices and at the conditions that perpetuated them. The ethical position I arrived at in early adulthood and which has only strengthened over time is, simply put, that it is a scandal that some live in poverty without the basic necessities of life while others live in luxury. It is a position rooted both in feelings of empathy and compassion and in reflection on my experiences and observations.
Out of the Cold has always meant for me not only an opportunity to be of service and to connect personally with people in need but also an expression of social conscience. While Out of the Cold provides some temporary relief for the homeless and near homeless, it in no way replaces the need for a permanent, decent place to call home. I needed to work on solutions, my analytical tendencies coming to the fore. And so I have learned about the many pieces of the homelessness crisis, I attend meetings of advocacy groups and City councillors, and contact politicians in the attempt to be an advocate for measures that would begin to solve this deplorable situation.
In the end I think we all do what we do because we derive satisfaction, self-fulfilment and a sense of purpose from these actions, though we may never fully understand what produces them. What keeps me going and gives me hope? I am under no illusions that my limited efforts and abilities will on their own make much of an impact on the big picture. But I do believe that working collectively with others motivated by the same goals can and does have a positive impact on individual lives and even on public policy. Though it has been a long time in coming, a national affordable housing program, without which little progress on homelessness can be made, is on the horizon. On the individual level there are sometimes victories which help to make it all worthwhile as when Out of the Cold guests find work or housing. As when Leonard somehow managed to get control over his demons and to find his way back home.