In January, extreme weather conditions prompted the City of Toronto to open a temporary winter-respite shelter at the Moss Park Armoury. In response to a call for assistance from the city, The Salvation Army volunteered its services to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner each day for 100 people. What started out as a two-week stint turned into a months-long commitment. Public relations and development staff writer Linda Leigh was one of many Salvationists who volunteered their time to help those in need. Here is her report:

For months, 83-year-old Elsie slept rough on the streets of Toronto while she tried to get a foot in the door—any door. “I’ve never faced challenges such as this,” she told me. “All I seek is a safe, secure place to lay my head every night.”

Safe Surroundings
Elsie was one of more than a hundred people who were camped out on cots at Toronto’s Moss Park Armoury. Not sure what to expect, I arrived one morning to find a large warehouse-type room with 100 cots. Inside were a diverse group of guests, in terms of age, ethnicity, education and mental capacity. Each unique in their own way, yet united and connected because everyone was experiencing homelessness.

While Salvation Army volunteers were setting up soup and sandwiches for lunch, I wandered around the room to see if anyone could use a cold or hot drink. Some people were sleeping. Others were restless and unable to sit still. Some were on guard despite the secure surroundings, protecting their personal items stashed alongside or under their cot. And some wanted to chat.

That’s when I met 56-year-old John, who was beside himself because he’d lost his backpack filled with heart and diabetes medication. He has a university degree but can’t work due to health issues. Three days earlier, after a heated argument with his landlord, he was locked out with nowhere to go.

And there was Jordan, in his early 20s, whose controlling father had kicked him to the curb. “All I wanted was for him to love me back,” said Jordan. He’d been sleeping rough on and off the streets for a while and wouldn’t use the shower on site at the Armoury because “at one shelter someone had put razor blades in the bottom of the shower. I didn’t notice them and there was blood everywhere. I’m just too afraid now.”

Ageing With Dignity
Then I saw Elsie, a petite elderly woman, sitting quietly in a chair beside her cot. She offered me a bottle of water. To see and talk to her, one would never know the 83-year-old was homeless—and that her home until recently was the backyard of a church.

The Moss Park Armoury shelterThanks to The Salvation Army, Toronto’s Moss Park Armoury became a welcome shelter for hundreds
Elsie’s challenges began a year ago when the owner of the house she was renting passed away. The house was later sold and the new owner had other plans. Elsie then moved into a basement apartment. She had lived there for months when the water heater broke and flooded the apartment. She lost all her belongings. Forced to move, she found another basement apartment. There, however, the landlord refused to provide her with tax receipts—so she moved out.

She says discrimination has made it impossible to find housing and stay off the streets. Elsie made more than 100 inquiries but when renters learned she was retired and elderly, they either hung up on her or said things like, “You don’t want to live here,” “You can’t afford to live here,” or “We don’t want an old woman who might die in our basement.”

So Elsie rented a car and lived in it for three months. But then, with no fixed address, she was unable to extend the rental agreement. That’s when home became the backyard of a church, where she was exposed to harsh weather conditions and her bed was blankets layered with cardboard and plastic. As she was telling me this, she grinned and said, “At least the church yard was secure.”

She told me that her bright spot at the shelter had been The Salvation Army—the care, encouragement and phone calls to help her find a home. She had never experienced kindness like this in her whole life. Her last words to me were, “Most hurtful are the assumptions people make about me. It’s sad.”

And thanks to the care and concern from a team of Salvation Army workers, Elsie made her way to Belinda’s Place, a multi-service facility operated by The Salvation Army in Newmarket, Ont., for homeless women. Today, she has a bed, a room and a caseworker to help her find a home. She has what she needs to finally get back on her feet and age with dignity.

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