It’s been said you can’t really know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. But what happens if you give a pair of once-loved boots to someone who is struggling, hoping the gesture will make their difficult walk of life a little bit easier?
Well, they’re literally finding that out at Haven Toronto, an over-50 facility which has been helping homeless men in that Canadian city for 85 years. And, as you might expect, the answer is extremely positive, one easily deserving of its own plot of a heart-warming Christmas special movie on the Hallmark Channel.
Recently, Haven received a pair of boots as a donation with a hand-written note attached from someone who revealed herself only as Laura. Laura explained she had bought the boots for her father, who wore them with love until he died. Now, she wanted someone who came to the day-shelter for assistance to have them.
“May these boots make you feel protected from the elements life brings. May they give you support to keep moving past barriers and hardships. May these boots tell your story as they did my Dad’s,” Laura wrote.
“My Dad would want you to have these boots. He would want you to know with these boots you can do anything,” she explained. “Leave a footprint each path you take and know you can change the world with every gift you’ve been given within you. From my Dad, Reg, to you. Signed Laura”.
Now some might dismiss the value of a pair of used, scuffed boots. But not Haven director Lauro Monteiro. For Monteiro knows Laura’s donation, and especially her personalized note, represent two of the greatest gifts the homeless need – a sense of hope and proof that they aren’t alone, that at least one person in a world which seems to have abandoned them, still cares.
“Believe me, we see a lot of hopelessness,” Monteiro says. “At least two, three times a day we’ll hear – I never thought in a million years I would be here. For many, the shame is the greatest. They’ve just spiraled down. They lost their job. They lost their employment insurance. Then their home. If they had a spouse, she probably left. Then new health problems like addiction or mental illness can set in. For many of these men, it’s the first time in their lives they’ve ever been homeless”.
Actually, the boots also make a very practical gift. Since the services the homeless men require are scattered all over the city, some are forced to walk up to 15 miles a day to receive them, Monteiro explained.
Of course, homelessness has long been a huge problem in large North American cities like Toronto. “But our numbers now are at epidemic proportions. We’re in a full-blown crisis”, the director says, noting there are more than 9,000 homeless residents trying to survive daily in the city of Toronto. Of that number, about 4,000 are men over 50.
Haven is one of 62 day or evening homeless shelters in this city of approximately 2.7 million people. Fifty-two of the facilities are operated by non-profits or social service agencies and 10 are run by the government. But only one – Haven – is specifically designed to help homeless men over 50, which represent the fastest rising group of people without permanent homes. In fact, Haven is the only sanctuary in Canada dedicated to serving elder homeless. “We see men here who are 70 or 80 and are being forced to live out on the streets,” Monteiro explained. “And age brings its own unique problems. It’s not just health, it’s also employment. I don’t know too many companies who are rushing to hire men over 50”.
The 12 full-time employees at Haven see about 400 homeless men walk through their doors daily. And daily means seven days a week, 365 days a year. For unlike the employed and the housed, the homeless never get a holiday. Nor do those seriously committed to helping them.
The center is open from 9 to 5 and, during those eight hours, visitors receive a variety of services. The facility offers three hot meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and since the doors close at 5 p.m., an early supper around 3 p.m. Each man pays $1 per meal, a small fee which allows them the dignity of knowing they are contributing something to their upkeep. In 2017, Haven served more than 52,000 meals. The facility also distributed about 11,000 items of clothing.
The homeless may use the shelter to shower or do laundry. There is also access to a reading library, television, and computers. At Haven, counselors work to help men find access to housing and guide those who need help with health care, mental illness, or addiction to the appropriate resources.
But sometimes, Monteiro says, Haven is simply a place for the homeless to gather and stay off the streets, for even those fortunate enough to have temporary shelter are not allowed to stay in those shelters during the day. “They have to be emptied so they can be cleaned and prepared for another night,” Montiero said. “We offer a safe place for the day. Sometimes, a person just wants to come in and watch TV or talk with others and that’s fine with us”.
Unlike many newer shelters, Haven has a storied history. It was started by activist and later Toronto politician Meg Blanchard as The Good Neighbors Club in 1933 during the Great Depression to help unemployed men. Initially, it was housed in a series of churches. It has been located at its current downtown Jarvis Street location since the 1960s.
Monteiro, by nature is upbeat, but also realistic about the homeless problem. There are no easy, quick solutions, and even if there were, they would be extremely costly and politically difficult to achieve. But he does believe there are three actions that could be undertaken to help ease the growing crisis. First, he said, too many different government agencies are tasked with portions of the homeless problem and those agencies need better coordination. Then, the emphasis should be on getting people into homes as soon as possible. “All the research shows that the sooner a person has a key to their door, the better they do,” Monteiro noted. Finally, there needs to be a better provision of crucial services to keep people from getting homeless or helping them sooner if they do. “We’re always working at the back-end when it’s an emergency, but we need to become better at preventing people from becoming homeless,” the director maintains.
But, in the end, or course, it’s the homeless Haven visitors who matter most, not just at this Christmas season of giving, but throughout the year. So, what do they have to say about Haven?
“Haven is a good name for it,” says Mike. (First names are all that are used at the center to avoid any sense of embarrassment or identification). “That’s what it is, a sanctuary. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving, you go by and its open”.
Fellow Havenite Al agrees. “You walk in and you’re greeted like a human being,” he says. “It’s just a great place to go. It’s like family”.
And, as we all know, there’s no place like home with family for the holidays.
If you would like to support Haven and the valuable work they are doing, you can make a donation directly on their website: Haven