Stories From Toronto Streets

TIM HUFF

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Autumn 1999

When we talked about drugs – Correen would stay.
When we talked about sleeping in the rain, in an alley-way – Correen would stay.
Pimps, shelters, police, school, fear – talked about it all – Correen would stay.
A “camp” of half a dozen teenagers I spend lots of time with,,, let me into their sincere, confused and very real world. And, we have talked about everything. All of it. Still, every time we talked about God, or “who Jesus is” – Correen walked away. Not far away. Just far enough not to hear us. Over several months I watched this occur. Finally one day I asked Correen “why?” She, like all the others had a quiet idea, or a raging opinion on everything else we talked about. And, in a matter if moments Correen changed the way I approach my life, my work and my faith.
Sweetly, softly and nervously she spoke; like the frightened little girl she is. She told me how she went to church every Sunday with her family. She told me how her family would hold hands to say grace. She told me how her dad would teach Sunday School, and lead church services. Then,,, she told me how he would sneak into her bed at night and quietly rape his own little girl. And she said “every time I hear about Jesus, I get afraid,,, ‘cause that’s what my daddy always talked about.”
Yesterday I was talking with her while she and a friend were panning for change. A man walked by, shook his head and said “get a job you lazy bitches.” While Correen and her friend sat silent (used to hearing this type of thing) I snapped. I surrendered everything I knew about composure. Without a second thought I turned my back on every “ministry sensitivity” value I’d ever learned. I got in his face and he got in mine. Every inch of me wanted him to hit me – as though I’d have some excuse to completely unwind on him. Other people intervened, and it ended with him cursing his way down Yonge Street. With an absolute look of shock, Correen thanked me.
Even as I write this I know I was wrong – but I fight the feeling I was right. How much more does Correen need to put up with? I know I was angry for the cruelty of the passer-by’s words, but I was also displacing my long simmering rage for her father.
We need to be smarter than I was. I need to be smarter than I was. But still,,, we need to be angry sometimes. There comes a time when enough is enough. Children need to be protected. Cycles of abuse must end. The name “Jesus” can’t remind a child of rape in her home. I pray to God you hold Correen in your heart this day
And,,, this is how working with “high risk” youth makes you a “high risk worker.”
Tomorrow is a new day,,,
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Christmas 2003

The greatest lie of our times is – that feeling something means something. We read stories that make us weep. Watch news briefs that break our hearts. Hear tales of shattered lives that rattle our minds. And still, more often than not, we wake up to the routine we have created, undisturbed. Unchanged.
Along the west bend of the Don River the city’s most critical heroin abusers do their best to survive. Tara is one week shy of her 17th birthday. Introduced to coke and heroin by her own young mom at age 10, she made the street home by age 13. Until last winter, her young body and pretty face paid the way for her existence – as she sold her body and soul daily on Jarvis Street
But last February, in record cold temperatures, she fell asleep too close to the fire in her make-shift shelter,,, and burned the entire left side of her face.
Tonight, in the sub-zero freeze of early December, the long white scars were even more pronounced against her cold red face. Bundled tightly in an old grey army blanket she shook uncontrollably.
“It’s my feet. My feet.” They were hidden beneath the stiff Grey wrap. Slowly she poked them out. Two old men’s workboots. Four or five sizes too big. Her wee feet tortured by the cold. Cold,,, and something more.
She looked down at her feet. Then back at me. Then down at her feet again, and began to cry. Of course I assumed the tears were brought on by the cold feet.
Then – there it was. The reality of a young life. Of a young girl longing to dream of high-school dances, summer romances and passing math class.
“I used to be pretty.” Tears dropping slowly. “Really, I was.”
Her scarred face, poisoned body, dirty rags and big old boots owned her.
I have literally met thousands of young people on our streets – and always the common denominator is – the longing just to be young. Dream. Live. Young.
That we might “feel” for Tara means nothing – if that’s all we do. “Feeling something” is easy. I would hope it’s the least we can expect from the human condition.
Tara went on to tell me still – how thankful she was for the old boots. An older homeless man, the night before, had seen her so cold in her old running shoes – given her his boots and walked away in his socks. More than feeling. Doing.
Further, I told a friend about Tara – and by tomorrow she will have new boots and a new jacket, handpicked for a teenage girl. Feeling,,, doing.
To “feel” for the hurting people in our lives and not “do” is surely submitting to a lie about what really changes lives. A kind word. A phone call. A kind gesture. Walking away from your old boots in sock feet. God things in simple ways, that simply say – I will do more than “feel”; I will “do”.
And Tara – sweet Tara – her feet will be warmer and she may feel a tiny bit prettier with her new boots, long before this reaches you.
May we all “do” with our good hearts this Christmas.
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May 1999

About 1000 yards from Toronto’s “Sky Dome,” just north of the Gardiner Expressway, there is a small secluded field. It sits and waits for an owner to turn it into something “mega-city” spectacular. In the meantime it is an unlikely oasis for several homeless camps that quietly move though out the city. Often, in the mid-morning sun, I am able to find my young street-friends there. Benji spends a lot of time there.
It’s 10 am, & Benji is smoking his third joint of the day.
I bring donuts and a newspaper. Sit down beside him. Sun is bouncing off the CN tower right into our faces. He looks at me & nods. I nod back. No words. He looks down at the cover of the newspaper between us. Looks up to the sky & finishes his joint. 10 minutes we sit; no words. No plans, Finally,,,
“My bullet has my name on it.” Reaches into his jacket pulls out a small hand gun, releases the chamber, shakes it into his left hand, holds up a bullet between his thumb & pointer. Sure enough, easy to read, in his own hand-writing,,, “Benji.”
Bullet back in the gun. Gun back in the pocket. Light bouncing in a new direction off the tower. It was the newspaper. The high school murder/suicide tragedy in Colorado. He’d already read a copy of it. Today was the day after it occurred.
“Some minds aren’t right to start off with. You can’t push. You sure can’t laugh..
Brilliant boy with a bullet, providing more insight than 12 pages in the paper.
“They’ll look. Parents’ fault. Schools’ fault. Friends’ fault. Musics’ fault,,, they’ll never get it. No one gets it. kids with demons. Don’t want ‘em. Just got ‘em.”
He stood up. “Can I have one?” I handed him the donuts. He took one. “See ya.” He left. I sat for 10 minutes. The end.

• Most important lesson I’ve learned on the street: pick your words – if you can’t find no good words, use none.
• Most valuable tools for street work: composure & faithfulness.
• Greatest rewards: when God turns a miracle on my very uncertain decisions.

Yesterday, Benji handed me the bullet with his name on it. Simply placed it in my hand and said, “you’re right.” I’d not once mentioned a thing. He knew me. I knew him. We both understood the words in the silence.

I do truly believe we need to choose our words wisely to care for our young people. Our anger, our sorrow, our joy, our compassion, Our God,,, those busy young minds need clarity and peace. Somehow.

Well,,, don’t we all.
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Spring 2000

Tall, tanned, well-dressed. He walked quickly towards me. “I knew it! I knew you’d be here! I knew it!” He said it over and over as he approached me. I stood up from the curb I was sitting on facing the lake, from the Spadina on-ramp. I had no idea who he was, what he wanted, or why he was so happy to see me.
“Well, Hi”,,, I stood in front of him with a blank look on my face. He laughed, almost glad I didn’t recognize him. Then he pulled up the sleeve of his jacket – & simply overwhelmed me. Clearly carved into his left arm in large letters were the scars that read “FEAR”.
Six years earlier, only one block away, I helped bandage those wounds he knifed in his arm, in a drugged & panicked state. He was 15 at the time. Came to the street with 2 black eyes from his alcoholic father. Within weeks of entering street-life, he bottomed out in every destructive way possible. After 3 months on the street, I helped him find a long-lost Grandma. We got him a bus ticket out west, and never saw him again.
Now here he was, a man. An engineering student at a California University, engaged to a medical student, attending a Baptist Church, volunteering at a local food bank. A miracle. The one-in-a-million story you pray for, with every kid you meet on the street.
He talked, and talked, and laughed, and cried,,, then rushed off, late for his flight back to California. As he ran north on Spadina, he turned back every 50 yards shouting,,, “I knew it!” & “Thank you!” I realized in our 20 minutes together I had hardly spoken. He was too excited, I was too in shock.
As I stood silent, waving to him, I heard footsteps – then a voice behind me. “Who’s that?” he asked. I turned around. There was 15 year old Michael behind me, ripped clothes, dirty face, sleeping bag in his arms.
“That’s you! I pray to God that’s you!” I answered.
He shook his head and walked away.

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Christmas 2007

Though it was broken, she treated it as though it was nothing less than priceless. For after all – it was.
Trudy wouldn’t say why she had left home. The most she ever surrendered was said one evening as she ran her fingers across the sharp edges of her sacred keep-sake – “You can only get so broken & still be worth something.” Enough said.
A Christmas ornament. An ordinary round, red ball & hook, hanging from her worn nap-sack.
And while she kept her own story a mystery, she was enthusiastic about the story of the ornament. “My grandma’s tree was all red. Red lights, red bulbs, red tinsel. Even a red star.” Pause. “I loved it. I loved her. But she’s gone.” Pause. “We got half of her belongings, including all of the Christmas stuff.” Pause. Tears. “When I come home one day from school, everything was thrown around the living room – broken – ruined. All of it.” More tears, and then she walked away.
The telling of the ornaments story gave her up. Just as most street stories are revealed – through the thin curtain of unlikely objects, childhood memories & pauses in simple stories.
Mom left years ago. Dear grandma passed away. And dad had nothing to offer but rage & spite. Trudy was broken. Very broken.
Trudy packed her things & left that same day. On her way out the door she picked up one ornament from the living room floor. One tiny bit of Grandma. Of love. A memory of comfort & joy.
Of all that’s lacking on the streets, nothing is more scarce than comfort & joy. Tidings of comfort & joy desperately needed.
This year, & perhaps for years to come – I am inviting you to join my family, in hanging one broken ornament on your tree. Somewhere easy to see. So that every time you see it you will be reminded to say one simple prayer:
“For all whose hearts are breaking this season – comfort & joy, I pray for comfort & joy.”
And may it own you in a way that you seek opportunities right where you are – to bring comfort & joy to the broken-hearted in your life.
The last time I saw Trudy, she was kneeling in a ditch, cupping the ornament in both hands, and sobbing.
Priceless & broken,,, the ornament and Trudy.

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Christmas 2008

While reds & greens are standard Christmas colours, blue ornaments, blue tinsel & blue lights have inexplicably been my favorite. And if ever I hedged on that, these blue lights sealed the deal.
Jimmy-D is a boy wonder. One of countless brilliant minds hidden in the cracks of our nation’s city streets & alleyways. Tucked away on the external side of an abandoned lake-side sawmill, his make-shift dwelling is a monument to ingenuity & street genius. Several times he had cooked me hot dogs using 2 nails & electrodes wired to 9 Volt batteries. He kept a small space heater working on a timer via car battery & rejigged booster cables. And a string of 10 blue Christmas lights were lit for 5 minute intervals on a WWII radio hand-generator he bought at an army surplus store. Sad, beautiful, blue bulbs that would slowly begin to fade as the juice ran out; an ironic metaphor for street life, too profound to miss.
One night while we roasted marshmallows over a wheel-rim fire place, I asked him, “Why blue lights?” (Then told him they were my favorite.)
He answered with a soft smile, “Grandpa told me blue is the colour of depth,,, and everything deep in your soul is blue.” Grandpa was both artist & poet. And life line.
Jimmy-D’s grandpa died when he was 12, just 2 years before Jimmy-D escaped his abusive home. A bright blue light in Jimmy-D’s soul.
God’s secret weapons in the fight for faith are warm grandpas & tender grandmas. There are more safe & loving memories & wise quotes from grandparents floating aroung curbsides in Canada than from any other source – including parents, peers, teachers & preachers.
We sat below the blue bulbs at brow-level, weaved between skid-planks, and ate toasted marshmallows in silence. Between each roasting, he would lean over & re-hinge the hand-generator’s & wind the bulbs to a brighter blue.
A few marshmallows & rewinds later, I asked, “What else can you tell me about your grandpa?”
Jimmy-D leaned into his shanty & rummaged around. And he handed me an old leather bible. An old-school, Grandpa-looking Bible, with a cover that folded over the tissue-thin, gold-edge pages. He didn’t say a thing. He couldn’t. So he wound up the lights, opened the Bible on my knees & tapped his finger on the inscription. In Grandpa’s lovely cursive writing it read:
“My dear James, no matter what goes wrong in life, this will always be right. I will always love you – Grandpa.”
I read the inscription out loud. Then we sat in silence until the lights went out. May your Christmas be filled with the depth of blue & what is truly “right.”

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Dec. 2005

He didn’t have much. But what he did have was gone. Even the priceless.
In late August Toronto experienced its own small dose of planet earth’s unpredictable weather. A “macroburst” – that literally poured water from the sky, caused incredible damage through the centre seam of the city, running north & south.
The skies opened up so dramatically that drivers along the mid-section of the Don Valley Parkway had to evacuate their vehicles and swim for safety. It was both scary & remarkable.
Thomas was camped in the thickets hidden below the Bloor Viaduct. When the burst occurred he was counting his change, hoping for enough for a meal/ Twenty-minutes later, as he said, “it was like a nightmare, during a nightmare.” His money, his sleeping bag, his backpack – all swept away. But none of that mattered. He swam through the mud & murk frantically, hunting for one item. A picture of his little sister. At 14, two years younger, she had fled their abusive home a year earlier. She had left her picture on his bed the day she left – with a note on the back,,, “I’ll die here. One day, come and find me. I love you.” Now it was gone.
Only days later Katrina struck – terrorizing thousands, hypnotizing an entire continent. Two days after the disaster Thomas spotted me coming up from the Yonge/Bloor subway station. He ran towards me purposefully.
“Tim, Tim – I need your help.”
I nodded & shrugged – “Sure.” He held out a weathered coffee cup, filled with change. I looked at him curiously as he shook it in front of me, gesturing for me to take it. He reached into his back pocket & pulled out a crumpled piece of cardboard. On it was written,,,
“For Katrinas homeless. Because it hurts to lose everything.”
I took him to the bank and he handed it to the teller – asking her to add it to what they’d collected. Proud & sad & beautiful. The teller received it carefully, smiled and said, “I will.” The hot days have since turned cold.
3 ½ months later now. Today I passed Thomas outside of Sick kids hospital. Sitting with a coffee cup & a little sign, that reads:
“Donations for Sick kids. No one should ever lose a sister.”
If only we all had hearts like Thomas. If only.
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June 2005

The last time I saw Ricardo he was curled up in a ball, on a tiny cement traffic-light island situated in an extremely dangerous and complex intersection. Ricardo had been approaching vehicles, asking for spare change, for several weeks from this unlikely location.

Not the downtown core by far; but rather twenty-five kilometers north-west of it. Urban sprawl’s newest descriptor. A now common testament opposing the media and political myth that if we “outlaw” homelessness in the downtown core that it will go away.

Ricardo is a young man with the mind of a much younger man – in fact, that of a child. His developmental challenges are seemingly magnified by the awkward way he moves, and the difficulty he has with his speech. Many time I watched him trip into vehicles as he approached them, or put his face right inside the4 open windows of cars stopped at the lights. Occasionally those with a unique combination of quick perception skills and gentle understanding would respond in kind and generous ways. But that, by far, was the exception; most were startled, very upset or even terrified. Once I saw a man spit right in Ricardo’s face.

Ricardo’s story is a mystery. He can not recall much of his past never less tell it. All that I know for certain is that he left the small apartment he had because he was not allowed to have a pet there. He had kept his dog a secret for many months. But some playful barking, a chatty neighbour, and a quick tempered superintendent put an end to that.

What is lacking in Ricardo’s mind is clearly made up for by the depth of his heart; his absolute understanding that love and affection are priceless, shelter is simply a luxury. So Ricardo and his dog survived a cold Spring along a soggy stretch of the Humber River – together. Always together.

The last time I saw Ricardo, he was weeping because it had been two days since he had seen his best friend. Completely broken-hearted. His large, warm Retriever had wandered into the bush and did not find his way back.

The last time I saw Ricardo, he refused to move. I offered to look with him, and if we couldn’t find Bear, that we would at least find Ricardo a safe place to be. But he would not accept. He thought that if Bear were to come back, this would be the one place he would know to come to.

Soft, smart, dirty Bear. The only one Ricardo knew loved him unconditionally. The one who did not laugh at him or was not afraid of him. The one who protected him. And most important of all – the one who was willing to accept Ricardo’s love. Simply gone.

I have met countless young people and adults on the streets, ranging between bright and genius, who are no different. Owners of street pets – beautiful and strange. Hundreds of dogs, cats and kittens of all shapes and sizes, rats, mice, lizards, ferrets, pigeons, baby raccoons – you name it. Every owner longing to find some way to love and be loved without being hurt.

I have not seen Ricardo, or best friend Bear, for two weeks now. I have stopped at those lights everyday, longing to see Ricardo stumble into traffic, with a big brown Bear a few feet behind, tied to the lamp stand by a piece of clothes-line. And I pray at those lights with all of my being. I pray for safety. I pray that a man and dog have found each other like a boy and his puppy. I pray for gentle strangers to come along and be protective friends. And I pray most of all – that God would make my heart as pure as Ricardo’s – that I would know what is truly of value in life.

The first time I saw Ricardo, the day we met, I asked him what I thought was a simple question – “Why are you trying to collect change at this dangerous, busy intersection?” His simple answer, beautiful and profound, pointing east with a crumpled hand, “It’s near a pet store, and we get hungry.”

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Sept. 2008

On June 26th – technically the last day of school – I was walking through a downtown park at 1 am. Several people dotted the park in slumber, or passed out – but one unlike all the others. I came across a young man flat on his back; unconscious, bloodied, back pack of items dragged open around him. I called EMS, & waited by his side.
It is both sickening & fascinating to sit inches away from a total stranger who is completely vulnerable & unaware of your presence. Even after experiencing it as such hundreds of times. As I waited I decided to gather the remains of his belongings & put them back in his pack. Left behind were the un-sell-able, un-usable items; a street-muggers rejects. Among them… a grade 12 report card from another province. Information-gathering is the justifying word for a street-worker’s curiosity. I looked. 4 failing grades.
Most people think kids run from home for fear of low-brow abuse & addictions. But it is remarkable how many run from well-to-do, high-achiever expectations. This was Andrew’s story. Bad grades = dad’s wrath = beatings.
After an entire summer surviving the streets, Andrew is returning home for another stab at grade 12. By phone, the arrangements had all kinds of conditions & expectations that ended with his dad’s words, “or else.”
Andrew’s dad is a scholar. Andrew’s dad is also a cold fool. Andrew has already lived out “or else,” like no one should even have to imagine. Pride has wounded more young souls on the street than drugs & weapons ever could. It’s enough. It’s more than enough.
As the school year starts – lets love our young ones through bad marks, good marks, peer pressure, teen angst, whatever comes, whatever doesn’t. Just as God has in store for all of us, no matter how we succeed or fail,,,, knowing that “I love you” is always the “or else”; regardless of all other consequences.

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Spring 2002

He walks towards me with a smug look on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Two paces away he is fumbling with a six inch square of newsprint. One pace away he holds it up to my face,,, “What about this? Now what should we think of the homeless?”
I have just been the guest speaker in his church. Hanging from his clenched fist is the cheap ink-smeared shot “the Shakey Lady.” Delighted he continues, “See?”
Proof once again that if ever there was something to stop you from becoming a Christian, meeting another Christian might be it. (Y’know?)
“The Shakey Lady” nick-named for her handicap, by a reporter (something even my four year old son knows not to do), was a huge story in Toronto news.
She panned for change as a homeless woman – only for it to be discovered that she had an apartment with a big screen TV. What followed was a missed story on the gypsy culture, replace by an attack on the homeless. I stood in line to buy milk and heard a man furious about the looney he gave her,,, he went on to buy $70.00 worth of lottery tickets while talking about it.
—She shouldn’t have done it. It was wrong. She is one person. No one died.—
Simply,,, that is my take on it.
That same afternoon I was on the streets – just after I’d spoken at the church. Here’s who I was with:
Salo – missing one finger. His drunk father cut it off with a hatchet, before he beat his mom into submission. He was 15 years old.
Ellen – her dad pimped her to his work friends for drug money at age 12.
Mr. Mo – 81 years old. An airforce pilot in World War 2,,, fought for our very freedom. Lost everything when his family perished in a house fire in 1969.
All three were panning for change that day.
Their stories didn’t make it to the covers of Toronto’s newspapers 4 days in a row.
So, what to say to this man with the time and desire to cut out articles before church,,, what should he think,,, we think?
In the least – consider that every person you see on the streets has their own story. Every single one. Every story, every life – different! Just as yours is.

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Spring 2006

His head hung low. Shoulders dropped. Knees on a pad of ice. Someone’s son. Toby had had enough. The cold, wet greyness of late March found him on his knees in tears, begging God for better. But that 1 had happened his way that evening, no one else would know he was there. But – he was indeed.
His head hung low. Shoulders dropped. Knees on a pad of ice. My son. Less than six hours earlier, at one of Toronto’s hockey shrines – Weston Arena. The championship game & last game of the season for the entire league. Awards to follow, so all the teams and parents for Jake’s division were in the stands. The place was humming with Minor hockey electricity,,, kids dreaming of the NHL, mom’s believing their kid is “it,” and dad’s wishing they could do it all again.
Jake was playing goal. 8 years old, in a regulation arena, with the crowd cheering. 2 to 2 at the end of three periods. Overtime. My heart was pounding. Every shot, every pass,,, larger than life with the stands echoing “oooh”,,, “aaah”! As the first overtime period wound down, the division MVP broke out all alone down the right wing. And, lifted a shot over Jake’s shoulder for the win.
The goal scorer raced back to centre to be celebrated by his team. Jake’s team had not made it into Jake’s end. So there he was, all alone. My little boy, on his knees, sad & alone. Not wanting to look up. Trying to be brave. My boy.
My heart broke as I watched him. My eyes welled up, and I could not get to him fast enough. And still,,, it is just a game. A game.
Toby, exactly one year older than my son, is not playing a game. His dad is not watching with tears in his eyes, not longing to “make it all better.” In fact, six months earlier, his dad beat him within an inch of his life. Toby was on his knees praying for life. Pleading for a future.
Justice? Is it the luck of the draw that one boy is hiding from his dad, and eating out of trash bins – while the other as Pizza with his proud dad after a game. Fate? God’s will? No easy answers. But what is sure is this,,, God has created us ALL to do more. Care more. Give more. Serve more. To even the odds for Toby.
That day Jake won the sportsmanship award. His dad was so proud.
Toby got a sleeping bag and a sandwich from a stranger.
We must do more!
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One Day… But Not Too Soon

3am. Not the ideal time to be up and writing… but indeed the time my heart tells me. There is an underworld of night-crawlers sneaking through the city while it sleeps. Dozens of individuals that eat from trash bins after midnight, and only feel safe to explore the world by moonlight. Lost souls, purposely hiding.

When I reached Eddie beneath the bridge, he was inconsolable. I sat close by and just waited until he could bring himself to speak. But before that ever occurred, I noticed two things. One – something was missing. Two- something stunk. Before Eddie could gather himself up, I put things together.

“Where’s Shiloe?” I leaned in. Eddie wailed even louder. So I stood and followed the smell. I lifted the Grey army blanket resting beneath the concrete beam, and there he was. Shiloe, dead.

When Eddie ran from his abusive home nearly a year ago, he took his best friend with him. The only one he could trust. The family do, Eddie’s solace since age 5, “Shiloe.” The one he clung to at night during dad’s drunken outrages, and the same one he clung to in the hidden alleyways of the inner city.

There is another group of people who roam in the darkest hours of the night… these are the night-feeders; those that prey on others. Those that steal, and beat, and hurt others to feed their weakened bodies and confused minds. When old Shiloe tried to protect Eddie from the night-feeders, faithful in a way only a good dog can be, he paid the ultimate price. They stabbed him to death. Faithful to the end.

Eddie finally stuttered out his words. Told me what he wanted. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, that I have stumbled around fuzzy lines of health issues or property acts. But… we carried Shiloe’s old brown and grey body through the shadows for about a kilometer. Then we spent an hour with some old pieces of board, digging a grave at the side of the railway tracks, where they would walk.

Many of you reading this letter have a dog at your feet, or a cat curled up on your lap even now. Others will see them on walks in the park later in the day, or at the end of the street. Today when you experience your cherished pet, or see someone else so likewise (especially a boy and his dog)…won’t you say a prayer for Eddie? And for the countless “Eddies” running, hiding, and doing their best day-to-day, across the nation.

As we stood over the secret grave, Eddie said, “I’ll see you soon Shiloe.” In a terror I have known too well, I put my hands on his shoulders and said “One day. But not soon, okay? Not soon.”

Love. Pray. Act. Believe.

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Valentine’s Day 2008

Valentine’s week in Toronto this year set record numbers for snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. A great metaphor for what’s known to be the history of Valentine’s Day – which is really the anniversary celebration of cold-hearted murder set against the warmth of love. In Rome, A.D. 240, Emperor Claudius had the Bishop Valentine brutally executed for his Christian faith, and for secretly marrying lovers – because the emperor was convinced that “love” weakened men he needed as soldiers. While in prison, the one who would be sainted two centuries later fell in love with the jailers daughter. His farewell to her came in the form of a note signed, “From your Valentine.” Thus, Valentine’s Day is best understood as a memorial to honour warm hearts beating in the face of the coldest of realities.

Deza won’t tell me her age. (But I would guess 25 or so?) Won’t tell me where she’s from. Won’t tell me where she goes when she’s absent from the street for days, weeks, even months at a time. Still, I have known her on-and-off for at least 3 years. 3 years that have aged her no less than the equivalent of 10. But despite her secret existence of survival, she seems mildly amused by my redundant presence and failing persistence. On Monday, I offered to help dig out her lost belongings covered beneath the 25 cm snowfall that had landed while she slept, somewhere beneath the Jarvis onramp. But, “no thanks.” On Tuesday, I brought her hot chocolate and a bagel and begged her to let me walk her to a shelter, submitting to the -25 degree wind chill. But, “no thanks.” And on Wednesday, I brought her extra socks and hand warmers. And again, with raised eyebrows and a polite nod, “no thanks.” Tell-tale signs of abuses at the hands of men who had posed kindly in her past, and ended up tearing at her soul.

So I walked on. A 30 minute meeting at a donut shop, a 20 minute conversation with a frostbitten teenager, and a 10 minute chat with two drunk seniors on a heating vent, and I had circled back to Deza’s corner for the day.

I looked at Deza, smiled and sighed, “I know, I know, no thanks.” And she smiled back. But then, straying very far from the norm, she called out, “Hey, hey…”

My heart leaped. She was always a responder. And in that, always kind and courteous. But distant at best. Never, in any way was she an initiator. Perhaps this was a new day though – I thought, I hoped, I prayed.

“Yes, yes, what is it?” I all but leapt at her.

She drew her shoulders back as if to say – “too close.” So, indeed, I stepped back instantly and repeated myself in softer tones, “Yes, yes, what is it?”

Her hands fidgeted beneath her worn sleeping bag and then one reached towards me. In her grey mitten was a shred of paper. I reached out and took it slowly between my fingers.

Much more than a simple note, it was a Valentine. Not a glossy store-bought one. Not a romantic poem or sonnet. No ribbons, bows, or tinfoil glue-ons. Something much, much grander than those could ever be.

Deza had hand-torn the red back of a cigarette pack into the shape of a heart and written 3 words on the opposite side:

“Thanks for trying.”

Measure for success in my career do not exist. Trying to create such a yardstick would and could only announce the unbearable failure in seeing too few lives changed, bettered or made new. So, people like me cling to “ministry” terms, so that we can at least get out of bed in the morning without feeling completely defeated, sigh: “the only measurement for success is being faithful.”

But if there was a gauge in place that would at least identify the true highs – well, simple and profound things like notes on the backs of cigarette packages would peak the mercury. And 3 words like “thanks for trying” are worth more than silver or gold.

And while I believe that there may be no greater compliment that any of us could share with one another – on or off the streets – than “thanks for trying”, the beauty in it has nothing to do with any of my failed attempts. Far from it.

I go home every single night to my warm bed, and forget to thank the people who fill me up, share my world, and are committed to the ends of the earth on my behalf. So, what kind of angel is it that sleeps in snow banks and can make 3 words more beautiful than the scrolls of poets? What precious child of God hides from the world, eats from trash bins, and tears pieces of garbage into cherished gifts?

Surely it’s one who has a heart more alive than most. One who remembers the smallest of details about going to summer camp as a child. One who wishes that she was dressed pretty, walking into the very restaurants she panhandles in front of, to meet a handsome date. One who dreams of being a mommy, of grocery shopping and choosing bath towels for the guest room. Yes, yes and yes. Over the years, of the tiny bits she would allow, these are among the sentiments she has indeed shared.

But who is she right now? She is the one who cannot pretend her way into Valentine’s Day. She is the one who cannot buy her way into Valentine’s Day. She is the one who cannot wish her way into Valentine’s Day.

Look at me while I hold her note between my palms, up against my chest, and I will tell you what I believe she is. She is Valentine’s Day. Because she is the warmest of hearts beating in the face of the coldest of realities. And for that reason alone, she is also my hero.

To those of you who have stood with me even when I was nothing shy of an embarrassment… to those of you who have prayed for me even when what I deserved most was to be scolded and shunned… to those of you who have spoken blunt truth to me only to be ignored or dismissed…and to those who have loved me only to have it taken for granted… this Valentine’s Day I was reminded of the life-giving power of three beautiful words. As much as the day is shaped around the three magic words “I love you,” these are not them. Without a doubt, they are:

“Thanks for trying.”

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Advocacy: Being a Voice

“Spare change – for my friend on the next block. He’s going home.”

In over 20 years of street work, I had never seen a sign like this. I quizzed homeless young Terrance on his sign, as he sat panhandling on Queen Street. And he explained, his buddy “Shaggy” was ready to return home, now that his mom had separated from his very abusive dad, and he just needed money for a train ticket east.

Terrance had nothing. One rung below Shaggy’s plight, he didn’t even know where mom was. Any change he could reel in from strangers, he could more than use for himself. But, while his life and prospects were cold and dark, his heart was the warmest and brightest light on the Queen Street strip.

This is not a story about panhandling or begging, or meant for the controversial dialogue it often brings. It is not really even a story about homelessness. It is a story about advocacy.

The word “advocate” gets thrown around a lot in this day and age. Measured up against the notion of “armchair quarterbacks”, there are countless water cooler advocates across the country, soap-boxing on every issue under the sun. Sometimes the title “advocate” is owned with more pride than goodwill. But the heart of advocacy is not words on a page or spoken aloud. They have their place, but they are not at the core.

Empathy, selflessness, and a passion for justice – these create the bedrock for godly advocates. It is impossible to imagine a Messiah that would only talk about serving the poor and loving His neighbour, or merely speculate on dying for our sins. The words were, and are, transforming because they coincide with the humility and sacrifice of actions.

Through my highest and lowest of times at Youth Unlimited, one of the constant encouragements to me has been listening to the hearts of our staff as they share the challenges of the young people they are among. Heartfelt words born out of seeing, experiencing, doing, and wanting to do more. This is advocacy. This is what makes words spoken aloud or on a page come to life, and become more than just opinions.

Shaggy went home. Two thirds of the train fare were paid for by Terrance, who hugged him goodbye at the train station, and returned to his cold, wet corner. The day Shaggy left, Terrance had one small sign in front of his empty coffee cup. Asking for nothing, it simply read, “Thank you, my friend is home.”

This is advocacy.

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christmas

I guess I could stumble around many words and phrases…and none would do it
justice. But to choose one – I would say “profound”. I held up pretty well
as we played and visited and chatted, with more than a few times I needed to
busily look away…but took a more than a few minutes to kind of crumble
afterwards at my truck.

A beautiful, witty, very-well mannered little boy. Very gray, and wears a
little hat because he has no hair – and there is nothing left they can try
to do for him now, but wait with him.

After about a half an hour – he told me as we were playing with cars on the
floor – that he was scared to die. Then he asked me if I knew what it felt
like to die. I answered that I am not sure – but I am certain God would want
to make it easy and quiet. And he nodded. And now my prayer – and if you
would, I would ask your prayer to be – is that in my boldness to answer, I
would not be proven a liar – that God would truly make it easy and quiet.

After a long time playing the nurse entered and said she thought it was time
for him to have his rest. And he looked up at me – Santa – and said, “I wish
I could play more, but I am really tired.” And in that profound moment it
felt like every minute I have wasted or taken for granted this past year was
flashed before my eyes. Here this little boy who truly does not have time on
his side, and wished for a bit more time than his body refused to give.

None of what I have just explained does justice to what I feel like this
Christmas Eve…words here do not even come close to suffice. But, my dear
friends – for your interest, and thoughts and prayers – this is a glimpse of
an amazing time I will never forget my entire life, and that I would pray
would surely change my own life.
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Established in 1826, by Lt. Col. John By, Ottawa’s Byward Market is one of Canada’s largest and oldest public markets. Within the 4 square blocks of eclectic cafes, galleries and boutiques, there exists a renowned outdoor arts-culture-novelties marketplace unparalleled in the nation. All the standards are present, committed to makeshift counters and milk crate exhibit areas; fudge, mocassins, Mountie dolls.

It was walking through rows of keychains and nick nacks that I literally stumbled upon the Market’s greatest find. Unpermitted and unwelcomed, she sat on the outs of the action, with the most delightful curbside wares of all. She was small and ancient, wrapped in a jacket three sizes too large. Twitching and mumbling, occasionally calling out to a passerby who stepped into earshot – “Christmas trees! Baby Christmas trees!”

I believe with all my heart that God has something extra special in heaven for those who have survived homelessness while mentally ill. Nothing on the street brings me to tears like they do. Likewise, no one fills me with intrigue as they. And certainly, no joy has been greater than laughing at their side – not at them, but with them. Their mystery, abandon, terror and lostness are profound beyond compare.

Her sidewalk setup was magnificent. She’d cut the tips of pine and spruce branches, packed them in little balls of mud, wrapped them in cigarette package foils, and bowed them with old red and green laces and twine. Tiny, imperfectly perfect, Christmas trees – 1$ each. More Christmas magic at her fingertips than anything else in the Market.

She lit up as I drew near. I got on my knees beside her and leaned over her wee tree lot. “Help me pick the best one,” I asked. And she spent twenty glorious minutes going over each one and what made it special. Finally, she picked one up and handed it to me. “This one. This one is special. If you plant it, it will grow full size,” she chimed, with sweet belief in her eyes that it would. Somehow, that it truly would.

I bought that “less-than-even-a-Charlie-Brown-tree” and planted it by the Rideau canal before I left town. Sometimes we honour people best and most when we simply believe with them – even, especially, in the impossible.

God bless you in your sweet belief, and those who come alongside you to make it so. Merry Christmas, Tim.
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While reds and greens are standard Christmas colours, blue ornaments, blue tinsel and blue lights have inexplicably been my favourite. And if ever I hedged on that, these blue lights sealed the deal.

tims-right

Jimmy-D is a boy wonder. One of countless brilliant minds hidden in the cracks of our nation’s city streets and alleyways. Tucked away on the external side of an abandoned lakeside sawmill, his make-shift dwelling is a monument to ingenuity and street genius. Several times he had cooked me hot dogs using two nails and electrodes wired to 9 volt batteries. He kept a small space heater working on a timer via a car battery and re-jigged booster cables. And a string of ten blue Christmas lights were lit for five minute intervals on a WWII radio hand generator he bought at an army surplus store. Sad, beautiful blue bulbs that would slowly begin to fade as the juice ran out; an ironic metaphor for street life, too profound to miss.

One night while we roasted marshmallows over a wheel-rim fireplace, I asked him, “Why blue lights?” (Then told him they were my favourite.)

He answered with a soft smile, “Grandpa told me blue is the colour of depth… and everything deep in your soul is blue.” Grandpa was both artist and poet. And lifeline.

Jimmy-D’s grandpa died when he was twelve, just two years before Jimmy-D escaped his abusive home. A bright blue light in Jimmy-D’s soul.

God’s secret weapons in the fight for faith are warm grandpas and tender grandpas. There are more safe and loving memories and wise quotes from grandparents floating along curbsides in Canada than from any other source – including parents, peers, teachers and preachers.

We sat below the blue bulbs at brow level, weaved betweed skid-planks, and ate toasted marshmallows in silence. Between each roasting, he would lean over and re-hinge the hand generator’s handle and wind the bulbs to a brighter blue.

A few marshmallows and rewinds later, I asked, “What else can you tell me about your grandpa?”

Jimmy-D leaned into his shanty and rummaged around. And he handed me an old leather Bible. An old-school, Grandpa-looking Bible, with a cover that folded over the tissue-thin, gold-edged pages. He didn’t say a thing. He couldn’t. So he wound up the lights, opened the Bible on my knees and tapped his finger on the inscription.

In Grandpa’s lovely cursive writing, it read:

“My dear James, no matter what goes wrong in life, this will always be right. I will always love you – Grandpa.”

I read the inscription out loud. Then we sat in silence until the lights went out.

May your Christmas be filled with the depth of blue and what’s truly “right.”
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