Saturday, January 2, 2010

Coming in From Out of the Cold

Growing up in Montreal, I’d play outside for hours with my friends on cold winter days. Eventually my mother would call out to us, “It’s time to come in out of the cold!” After shedding our rock-frozen mittens and kicking off our snow-filled boots, we’d warm up by the fire with hot chocolate and cookies.

For the homeless women and men in our city streets, coming in from out of the cold means much more than warming up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. It is a matter of survival. Thanks to the goodwill and dedication of many volunteers throughout the city of Toronto, the marginalized and socially isolated do have a place to go during the long, bleak winter nights.

Out of the Cold is a men’s shelter program devoted to providing those in need with a warm place to sleep and shower; a home-cooked dinner and breakfast the next day; fellowship in a safe environment; a haircut from a volunteer barber; and a selection of clean, warm clothes to wear, generously donated by people who have gently used items to pass on. Subway tokens and toiletries are also provided.

It's never easy to accept charity, and many of the men who walk through the doors would much rather be somewhere else. They can be unemployed, hard-working indviduals who have been out of job for various reasons, they can be men struggling with alcohol or drug addictions, or suffering from mental illnesses. Many have families but have become alienated or rejected.

About twenty churches and synagogues participate in this program, which has been running since 1987. Each night of the week during the cold winter months, a bed and two meals are offered by one of the host sites. I belong to a group of women who chips in by supplying, cooking, and serving dinners at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the west end of Toronto. We buy and prepare the food, including meals like baked ham with pineapple orange sauce, baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, coleslaw, corn, and cherry tarts with ice cream. A recent menu consisted of a variation of chicken cordon bleu, rice and broccoli--a very big hit!

The food is prepared off-site and transported to the venue, where a cheerful group greets you and explains the procedure. The guests begin arriving at 5:00 and are first served a bowl of homemade soup followed by plates loaded with food. The system is down to a science—no more than four cooks in the kitchen; hairnets a must; average portions to start, but seconds available. Three expert dishwashers await the onslaught of dirty dishes.

In the dining hall, tables are set for about seventy-five men, and mattresses and blankets line the periphery of the room, which another group of volunteers, including kids and teenagers, arranges in advance. Greeters and servers meander about, chatting and joking with one another as they wait for the gentlemen to arrive. The volunteers, whether religious or not, congregate for a short prayer before dinner. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the powerful and inspiring message:

Most Gracious God,

You have called us to be a caring church. Strengthen us with your love today. Give us grace in our work together. Grant us wisdom in our conversations. Give us ears to hear the unspoken cry of the heart and eyes to see others as fellow pilgrims on the road of life. Let your Spirit flow through us to guide and bless all we do. As we share the cup may we touch your cross. In Jesus name we pray.


Once the men enter the hall, the volunteers move into action. Soup is served, meals distributed, milk and juice poured. Second servings are requested and provided. It is heartening to see many of the diners in animated conversation while enjoying the meal. One of my friends, a devoted volunteer, loves to socialize with the men and listen to their stories. She is a dynamo who brightens the room with her signature good cheer.

When all is said and done, one can only feel a sense of gratitude for programs such as these, and for all the people who contribute so much time and energy to helping others. Mine is but a small part in the production, but every part counts and I’m always happy to participate alongside the wonderful people who make these dinners so special.

On cold winter nights like tonight (it’s about -20 degrees right now), sleeping in the streets can be deadly. Thank goodness there are places for people to go and that there are those who care enough to create a warm, nurturing environment where the downtrodden can find a good meal, a warm bed, and a reason to face tomorrow.


  1. What a wonderful ministry to be involved with, Carla. Warmth, shelter and nourishment -- programs like this are never more important than at this time of year.

  2. Carla, thank you for sharing this story. It's wonderful to hear about someone who does more than just "talk the talk."

    I can't see or hear about a homeless person without thinking that once, they were someone's sweet child. That person is still there, somewhere deep inside, and they deserve our respect and compassion.

    I recently read about the owner of the El Mocambo, and how in the wee hours of the morning, after the bar has closed, he drives the streets of Toronto distributing food, clothing and blankets to the homeless.

    Thank goodness for people like the both of you.

  3. Hi Carla,
    My husband was one of a group to start up "Inn from the Cold" here in the Valley. There are 7 churches (all from different denominations), each with their night of the week from Nov. - April. We feed them and give them a warm night...same idea as what you are doing. It has been very powerful for our church, being involved with this ministry. We have noticed an increase in numbers this past year due to the economic times. Despite what is read in the media, there are many kind, generous and caring people left in society, but sadly, there are too many who need them.

    Keep up your good work in Toronto, where the needs are so great. It not only takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to care for those who can't care for themselves.