A number of years ago, I was introduced to an organization in Toronto called Ve’ahavta, a Jewish humanitarian response to poverty. While it is a Jewish charity, they are well-known for helping and supporting everyone in the community. They have a number of different services and programs, but they are best known for an initiative called the Mobile Jewish Response to Homeless (MJRH). The program involves a social worker driving around the city, in a van, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and providing food, beverages, clothes, sleeping bags, and health and beauty supplies to those in need. In addition to the social worker, they rely on members of the community to volunteer to go on the van (four volunteers every night) to assist. The van is so well known and well used, that it actually takes five people to keep up with the demand.
When I first learned of the initiative, about three years ago, I wrote a blog sharing the story of how the SQM employees and field force volunteered to help out and how we took an entire week’s worth of shifts on the van. Before I went on the van, I had been told that it was certainly an eye-opening experience, and that after a night on the van you look at the city differently…and they were absolutely right.
In more recent times, we decided that as my daughter is about to turn 13, we wanted to instill in her the importance of giving and helping others.
The evening started out with my wife, my daughter, one of her friends, and myself making sandwiches (and bags of dog food and treats as often the four legged friends are forgotten!). The van actually serves hot meals 5 nights a week, but our night was a sandwich night. We then spend time loading up clothes, blankets, sleeping bags and hygiene and toiletry products into the van before we set out on our route. Many of the clients, as they are respectfully called by the organization, know what time to expect the van in their area, and when we arrived at our first stop, there were already three people waiting for us.
During the evening, one thing that became clear was how many of the clients take care of one another. If someone couldn’t make it to the van for a sandwich, they’d ask for a second sandwich or a bottle of water to take to them. If we stuck around for awhile, they’d go and get their friends, so that no one missed the opportunity. In all cases the people were very polite and appreciative, and many enjoyed the conversation and interaction. My daughter, normally somewhat shy and reserved around new people, really stepped up and chatted with complete strangers. She came away realizing that these individuals are not stupid or lazy – but have many different reasons for needing extra help. Her compassion made me very proud of her and I was truly surprised by her enthusiasm for her tasks. She was kind and thoughtful and you could see the response to her in the people that she interacted with. It is worth noting, that the organization also focuses on education and that the (almost) teenagers were given a tablet full of information to read while we were driving and were routinely quizzed by the social worker and engaged in pretty deep conversations.
After three or four hours outside during a relatively mild winter night (including time going in and out of the van), I was already very cold. It is a real lesson in the power of the spirit as to how these folks manage living outside, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in areas where what little they have, is often taken or stolen. Sleeping under highways and on ramps and off ramps with constant noise, all the while battling the elements, be it rain, snow or heat, is certainly a challenge not to be taken lightly.
If you don’t think homelessness and hunger affects everybody, then reconsider: one of the men we met is actually a part-time teacher at a community college, while another woman was a retired chartered accountant that still teaches others. Later on in the evening, I met a person who used to be a carpenter, and it was clear from some of the other conversations I had, that many of these people were well-educated and/or had good jobs in the past. Throughout the evening, I met people who were incredibly innovative, including one group that actually built a shed and managed to get a hold of a generator, to power a heater. Apparently they also have a big screen TV, a Blu-ray player, and a sofa, and when it’s bitterly cold out, they all hunker down together, like a family.
Whether it’s the teamwork, caring for one another like a family, or keeping a positive attitude despite the conditions they’re facing, some of these people have incredible attitudes and are truly fascinating to speak to. While myself and many of my colleagues are frequently inspired by business people, professional athletes and perhaps the occasional celebrity, I now have to add many of the people who I met that night to my ever-growing list.
I realize that there are many reasons for homelessness in Toronto, and while I personally feel more has to be done to combat the problem, it seems that there’s a lot of agencies and politicians that are truly trying to address the issue but in the meantime, many of these people could still use our help.
To that end, I’m once again going to urge everybody who reads this post to consider supporting Ve’ahavta. The organization is always in need of new underwear and socks (two items often forgotten about), sleeping bags, and warm clothes and jackets. Here at SQM, we’re going to restart our sock and underwear drive, so if you’d like to donate either of these items, please feel free to send them to our office. If you’d prefer to send a gift card (Walmart or Costco to get the best bang for your buck), we will be happy to purchase the items on your behalf, and deliver them to Ve’ahavta. Please send all items to:
156 Duncan Mill Road, Unit 19
Toronto, ON M3B 3N2
As Ve’ahavta says: Together we can create pathways out of poverty through education…and a little help!