Tent Fires

Recently a person that we were just starting to know, died as a result of a fire in their encampment. Two Thursdays ago, he lingered at The Dale’s breakfast-to-go. He wanted to help and carried some empty trays back into the building. That was the last time we saw him. 

This morning we received the news that another encampment fire happened overnight. Fortunately, no one was hurt but everyone’s belongings were destroyed. As we gathered some supplies for these community members, one person shared how devastating an event it was. As I write, I am trying to imagine what it would be like to have a fire rip through my home. 

The harsh reality for many people is that home must be made in a tent. There are few to no shelter beds available on any given night. Housing is the opposite of affordable. And while the City can exercise discretion and open Warming Centres before it hits 15 below Celsius, they rarely if ever do. In order to not die from exposure, people light fires. I would too. 

This is a crisis that impacts very real people: each unique, each with a name, each with a story. It’s likely, since we are more interconnected than we sometimes realize, that we all know someone who is acquainted with the shelter system, lived in a tent, or couch surfed. None of us are immune from the potential of poverty. 

Oftentimes the issues that surround all of this feel insurmountable, but I don’t want to give up hope because of that. Sometimes all I can do/all The Dale can do is look for the next little step to take. Today that means giving our friends new tents, sleeping bags and…

fire extinguishers. 

Layers of Complexity and Beauty

During the month of December there were a number of moments which caused me to pause and give thanks. These are just a handful of them. Gifts given and received, from every angle. 

I admittedly can struggle with some low-grade anxiety as we near the fiscal year-end at The Dale. This has lessened over the years, though has never entirely gone away. I think it is a mix of remembering when we had so little and wondering, as we grow, if we will have what is needed. Tossed in is a sense of awe at how people support this community and a desire to trust for our daily bread. This year, aware that we were behind, I felt the all too familiar pit in my stomach. Then, surprise after surprise came and by December 31st, we had…enough. 

One Sunday he showed up at the referral of a friend who has long been connected to The Dale. We spoke at length about his hunt for housing while living outside. I wasn’t sure that he would stick around for the service, but he did. During the passing of the peace he shook my hand and said, “I feel warm in a way that I did not expect”. At the end, as he gathered his belongings, he stuck a small stack of coins in my hand for The Dale. “It’s not much, but it is what I have to give”. I told him it was a LOT. 

We have always had to be creative when it comes to preparing our Christmas meals. There are many components and limited kitchen capacity. This year we had a revelatory experience. Blythwood Road Baptist Church funded the meal. A group of three chefs volunteered to do the grocery shopping and all the cooking, while people from Christ Church St. James came to package everything up. This all freed the staff team to be working through other items on our to-do lists. It was a beautiful example of partnership and provision. 

We embraced while standing on the sidewalk during our meal-to-go. She had just candidly told me about all the reasons why Christmas is hard. As tears ran down her face and welled up in my own, we held each other in silence. Then another person, who also finds the season brutal, suggested that we sing. And so, we did. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”. 

A friend who I’ve known for as long as I’ve been in Parkdale made me this: 

A woman desperate to give her grandchildren presents asked if we could help with toys. We had just given away what we had but offered to keep our eyes open for options. A friend connected to a children’s space in Parkdale reached out to ask, “do you have anyone who needs toys? We have more than we needed”. The grandmother and I walked over to take a look and ended up leaving with age-appropriate goodies. She then pulled out a piece of paper and slowly read a note that someone had translated on her behalf, as English is not her first language. It was her gift to me. 

Experiences like this are not a rarity at The Dale. I cherish being a part of a community where the complexity of life is not ignored, and beauty is found in its layers. I cannot help but reflect on this as I consider heading into a new year. 

More Than Just Our Challenges

We chatted briefly one Saturday morning. She was sitting on her walker across the street, looking intently at the meal-to-go we were doing uncharacteristically on the weekend. We had met before on a few occasions but didn’t yet know one another’s names. As we conversed, I learned a little about her life and some of the hardships she faces. “I am more than just my challenges. I really want to do something. I would like to volunteer”. 

Today Maria (I have permission to use her name and tell this story) came to participate at our Breakfast. For a long time, our friend/core community member Ash was the one to hand out the meals, freeing the staff team to connect with people and stand in and with the line. Since Ash’s death, we have longed for someone to assume his role. He so embodied it, that to this day we say, “who wants to Ash today?” Well, on this morning the role went to Maria. 

At The Dale, we talk a lot about how important it is to both give and receive. We invite people into full participation of the community and celebrate that we have a shared responsibility for it. Too often people are robbed of the opportunity to give by being kept on the receiving end of charity. Everyone though has gifts to offer. 

While the line was still active, I went over to Maria to see how she was doing. Her response? “Today I feel like a real person. I love this”. Her whole demeanor softened as she greeted people and handed over brown paper bags of breakfast sandwiches, muffins, juice boxes and fruit. Many people she knew by name, having lived in the neighbourhood for many years. I asked her if I could take her picture, to which she said an emphatic, “yes, please!”

As the breakfast rush slowed, another person encouraged us to close our eyes and soak in the morning sunshine. With our heads back we collectively noticed how good it felt to pause and feel the warmth. Maria watched and reminded us that looking up at the moon and the stars, “is just as beautiful as looking at the sun”. I thought of that as the moon made its appearance tonight. As I again tilted my head back, what came immediately to mind was Maria’s contented face. May we all know, as she does, that we are more than just our challenges. 

Steve J

I don’t know when it changed, but at some point, it became a bit of a game. For a long time, Steve could not remember my name. We would see each other regularly, him in one of his usual spots, almost always sitting or leaning directly on the sidewalk. He would greet Joanna, Meagan and Olivia, and then look at me and say, “what’s your name again?” For a while I would get him to try and guess. A few times he called me Erinn. And then began the running joke. Steve would look at me with a glint in his eye and ask my name. I would say, “you know it!” and then he would start laughing. I loved to hear him giggle.

I’m not going to share the kinds of things that Steve experienced in his life, but I know he would be okay with me saying that he had more than a hard go. I have a strong memory of sitting with him and Joanna on a Queen Street West stoop one afternoon. He was generous with the way he shared. We talked about the importance of all people being treated as people, and how that’s what he wanted.

Steve died this week. I can’t imagine the corner of Queen and Dowling without him. I know that his friends, many of whom were constant companions, will be feeling his absence deeply. When I close my eyes, I can picture Steve on a happy day: he is lit up because a group of his people have gathered with drums and food. Some people are dancing in Jingle dresses. For a moment I can see young Steve, revelling in the feast.

Rest to you Steve. Chi Miigwetch.

The Heavy Fog

I was headed east when I noticed what at first appeared to be smoke from a fire. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized it was actually fog rolling in from the lake. Soon, no matter what direction I looked was a haze that made the skyline of Toronto eerily absent. The fog stayed for days. 

It was during this time that an unmistakable intense turn happened in the lives of many people I love. In general terms, there was a collective “we’re hitting the end of ourselves”. As I sat on the ground with someone in distress, I found myself with an uncharacteristic empty feeling in my gut. Neither of us could imagine a way forward. With tears stinging my eyes but not even falling, I joined in the lament for broken systems, injustice, trauma, lack of housing, misdiagnosis and overmedicating, estrangements, and the all too constant accumulation of grief. 

Just a week prior to this was Story Night, an event that I have yet to really process. When asked about it, I have consistently said that as a group we sat in the risky and messy middle of a lot of things, rare in this increasingly polarized world. At the beginning of the night I suggested that we didn’t need to rush through the lament in order to get to hope. We get to (need to) sit in the disorientation of pain, or as Walter Brueggemann describes, that place where we have, “sunk into the pit”. 

There are times when I sit in that pit and the weather does not match the mood, the sunshine taunting me to get up and get on with it. In a strange way, I think the dense fog that just wouldn’t lift was illustrating for me the necessity of being present to the grief. At times it was uncomfortable and very hard to see. All the familiar landmarks became unrecognizable. I had more than a few white-knuckled drives. It even felt claustrophobic. 

You can see the city again. The mist has retreated. Are all the lament-worthy things gone too? Unfortunately, no. I did however take notice of a few things. One person had a conversation with someone who had been ignoring them for years. Another has avoided eviction. Yet another had a bit of respite out of the city. I am also hearing from people who attended Story Night and were deeply impacted. It was an example of, as more than one person put it, mutual care.  Living into the tension of lament and hope is hard work. I am more convinced than ever that whether we are sitting on the ground with someone or gathered in a room with a lot of people, to navigate both the fog and the sun we need each other.

A Year of Hard (and Good) Things

I was sitting in bed one morning last August when it felt like the earth shook. Moments later a text from a neighbour explained the cause and had me running to the back window. A massive tree on a lot next to ours had fallen. It completely filled our yard, coming just short of the house itself while destroying our one-day-old shed in the process. The tree also blocked Dion’s only entrance/exit to the house. I felt stunned, especially hearing that Dion’s Personal Support Worker had been where the tree now lay, less than a minute before.

Shortly before the tree incident, workers had begun to fix the siding on our house. It was a job that we weren’t all that excited about needing done, though understood was necessary. We thought it would be done in about a week, maybe two.  It was not- mostly because the crew seemingly disappeared. In the meantime, we got someone to clear enough of the tree that Dion could get out and decided to escape to a movie. On our way there I had two difficult conversations on the phone- one trying to negotiate the covering of repair costs to our yard, and one attempting to track down the siding company. As I slid into a seat in the dark theatre, I began to cry.

After the movie, while still in the lobby, Dion looked at me and said he was in trouble. I asked a few questions and understood very quickly that “being in trouble” meant “get me to the hospital”. I got him in the van and drove to the emergency room. Though we didn’t know it yet, Dion had a very serious infection, one that would soon mean he could not move his body at all. Infections are no one’s friend but become especially scary when a person has Multiple Sclerosis. That day, even though he eventually recovered from the infection, was the beginning of Dion’s journey to Long Term Care. 

I had what I believe was my first ever panic attack in the hospital that first week of Dion’s admission. It was nearly impossible to talk to the health care team and no easy solution was apparent. I remember repeating the only prayer I could muster, “Speed to save us. Haste to help us. Speed to save us. Haste to help us.” Stumbling out of the hospital, I saw my brother and sister-in law drive by. I hoped they saw me too. Moments later we were on the sidewalk together, me a crumpled mess. My sweet nephew handed me some Kleenex and a bottle of water with concern written all over his face. Together we came up with a next step. 

What followed was a series of next steps, which included things like strong advocacy, hard conversations, and relentless prayer. After a battle to get Dion into a rehab program, we got word that he was accepted and to be moved the same day that I needed to get Cate into her new apartment. At the end of that day, I got into the elevator of Cate’s building and began to weep. I cried all the way home to an empty house. I decided to sit in that sadness and not try to escape it. In the morning I took a deep breath, relieved I managed to get through that first night.

There have been hundreds of nights since that first one. As August nears, I can’t help but reflect on this past year. It has been about living into the tension of so many things, embracing change both chosen and not, and weathering a spectrum of emotions. I have watched Dion adjust to Long Term Care, grieved that MS took him there, and felt relief that he has the support he needs. It is not how we imagined life to look at this stage AND it is our reality. 

The tree got cleared. The siding on the house was eventually completed. Cate comes to the house with frequency, much to my delight (and actually will be living at home again in the fall until going to the UK in January). You might spot Dion speeding down the street in his wheelchair, as the lack of Covid restrictions means he can get out and about. My therapist continues to help me navigate all the change, as does Dion, Cate, my Dale team and a community of family and friends. Some days I am full of energy and ideas. Other days I am hit with waves of sorrow. Death has hit again and again. So has opportunity to listen to live music, eat really good food, receive and give gifts, and experience the embrace of loved ones. 

There is a painting by a friend named Gil that hangs above the piano in our living room. It is pictured below. I stared at it a lot last August, especially as I was pleading for help. I felt like I was/we were stuck in the most turbulent part of the water. I couldn’t imagine the calm. “Haste to help us. Speed to save us”. I can’t claim that the answers came quickly, or that they were the ones I wanted. A way forward was made possible. I do look at that picture now and reflect on how different things feel a year later. There is nothing easy about this road. And somehow, it is also mysteriously good. For that, I am grateful. 

Artist: Gil Clelland

Cristian “Sanchez” Castillo

I have no recollection of when I met Sanchez. Not remembering where and when I met someone is rare for me. I imagine it says something about the way Sanchez inhabited the neighbourhood. He was one of those people who seemed to be everywhere all at once: in the parkette beside the Health Centre, on the bench outside of what used to be the Coffee Time, by the steps of 201 Cowan Avenue, and always, always with his dogs, Maggie and Chica. 

Sanchez came to Canada from Chile. You could always hear the Spanish in his voice. Sometimes there was a language barrier between us, but in my experience, Sanchez always dealt with this patiently. Usually it made him grin, look down, and slowly shake his head while quietly saying, “I really need to teach you Spanish”. To which I would reply, “PLEASE. Please teach me.” 

I could usually recognize Sanchez, even from a distance. He had a recognizable gait and silhouette. Sometime this year he also started wearing a helmet, to protect him from the falls that were increasingly a nemesis. He didn’t seem to mind, if anything claiming it as a cool new accessory. I loved that about Sanchez. Though there was a lot that he struggled with, he somehow seemed comfortable in his own skin. 

If Sanchez was having a bad day, there seemed to be one thing that would bring him to life: talking about his dogs, especially Maggie (who was actually mother to Chica). These dogs were not simply pets, but true companions to Sanchez. If you look at his Facebook profile, the vast majority of photos are of them. It became a huge concern that Maggie had what at first seemed a growth but proved to be a tumour growing on her belly. Because the surgery required was cost prohibitive, The Dale launched a GoFundMe on behalf of Sanchez.

Heartbreakingly, though the money arrived, the tumour proved too much and Maggie died. I will never forget receiving the news. Nor will I forget what became a necessary support to Sanchez: me, Joanna, and our friend Sam going to pick up Maggie to transport her to the vet. We gathered around Sanchez, with Chica hiding close by, to hold him in the grief and pray. The last time I saw Sanchez was the day I returned with Maggie’s ashes in an urn. 

Not long after this, Sanchez entered the hospital. Because of Covid restrictions, we could not visit him. However, he and I started to communicate on-line. I would occasionally receive video messages- usually short updates and always ending with how much he missed Maggie. I think it is fair to say that recovering from this loss felt unimaginable to Sanchez.

Sanchez was released from hospital, though we had yet to see him. Just yesterday we were alerted to his death through a flurry of calls and messages. I know that I am not the only one in a state of shock. To be candid, it doesn’t feel real. On behalf of The Dale, I want to extend our condolences to his family. I extend the same to those who counted Sanchez friend. There has been a lot of loss in our community over the last few years, something that Sanchez felt acutely. Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy. 

Sanchez- thank you for all of the chats over so many years. No matter how hard the day was, you would always stop and say, “let me first ask: how are you?” I will miss seeing you in the neighbourhood. We all will. I don’t know what you are experiencing now, but I really hope you are tossing Maggie a stick and feeling pride every time she brings it back. Estoy agradecido por ti. I hope I have that right. I mean to say, I am grateful for you. 

Building the Trust of a City Street

Imagine that the sun is shining and there is a light breeze as you and I set out on a walk around Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood. This is the place that The Dale inhabits, a section of the city that is in the west-end, and just north of Lake Ontario. We start at 201 Cowan Avenue, an address that belongs to Epiphany and St Mark Anglican Church, but is used as a sort of “commons” for a variety of organizations, including Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, Greenest City, Flick the Switch Art Studios, a social enterprise kitchen called Aangen, and The Dale.

We meander across the street to a park with a concrete wading pool, a play structure, a concrete table that gets used either for ping pong or sunbathing, and the HOPE Community Garden in which The Dale has a plot. I share that we tend to grow a lot of herbs, lettuce, and some tomatoes, though last year we tried our hand at miniature pumpkins. Right now, the garden lays fallow, though it will soon be time to plant. To me, this spot feels like a bit of an oasis.

I invite you to walk north on Cowan to Queen Street West, one of the main thoroughfares through Parkdale. There is a community centre to our left, and a Public Library on the right. We run into a friend who is sitting on a bench. He tells us about what is being served for lunch at St. Francis Table (most of us refer to it as “The Table”), a Franciscan Friar run restaurant where you can get a good meal for $1. I suggest we head that way in order to notice the contrast between St. Francis Table and the very hip and high-end restaurants that litter the same block.

This dichotomy is apparent throughout our walk. Once one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city, Parkdale shifted to be known as gritty and well-acquainted with poverty. While there were many contributing factors to this, two big ones were the building of the Gardiner Expressway, a highway to our south that made people feel cut off from the lake, and the deinstitutionalization of mental health care (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, once Queen Street Mental Health is very close by), which meant psychiatric survivors were released and subsequently sought home in the area. Now Parkdale is a study in gentrification- the process by which the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, changing housing, and attracting new businesses.

I point out a few things as we walk: the popular vintage store called Public Butter, a poster for a protest about affordable housing, the yellow box that looks reminiscent of a Canada Post mailbox but is a receptacle for used needles. We stop to say hello to a group of people in the parkette beside the Health Centre, all of whom are community members of The Dale. One person comes out from the bushes, where they are sleeping rough. Another engages with you about where you are from and tells you an embarrassing story about me. We laugh. We comment on the nice weather before fist bumping a goodbye.

From here we walk south along a very residential street. I point out how you can tell if one of the mansion like homes is a single-family dwelling or a rooming house. We notice young families, a statue of Mary in a front yard, and Tibetan monks in burgundy robes. I suggest we get some Momos, Tibetan dumplings from a place called Loga’s Corner. I introduce you to the owner who gives a lesson on how to eat one, and graciously adds a few extra to our order.

We wave at the proprietor of the laundromat, chat with people hanging out in a bus shelter, and stand in awe of the woman who feeds the pigeons and has birds hanging out on her shoulders and head. We walk along Jameson Avenue, a street lined with mid-rise apartment buildings. Eventually we end up back on Queen Street West. I invite us to stop, close our eyes and take a deep breath, taking active notice of the sounds and smells of the neighbourhood. As we end up back where we started, we discuss your questions. I share a few more stories. We talk about the obvious diversity and resulting richness of Parkdale. We depart with a hug.

Jane Jacobs said, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.” The work of getting to know one’s neighbourhood takes intentionality. For me, walking has been integral to becoming connected to and rooted in Parkdale. It is something I have done since 2007 and that as a Dale team we do on the regular. The arguably trivial moments have led to many profound interactions, deep friendships, and a lot of opportunity to love and be loved. I am always glad to walk and love the opportunity to do so together.

Roots and Wings

I remember the first time I met Kimberley (who I usually simply call Kim). She arrived in our former building and was full of energy. Little did I know then that Kim and I would develop such deep friendship and camaraderie. She has been on the whole wild journey that is The Dale. Along the way we have shared countless cups of tea, brainstorming sessions, and walks by the lake. Kim has seen me in the depths of grief, and the heights of joy. We have accompanied one another to things that required support. I even had the honour of baptizing her in Lake Ontario.

At The Dale we talk a lot about how everyone is invited into full participation of the community, and that this looks very different for each of us. We celebrate how unique we each are and the various gifts we have to offer. This is not static either- what we might have the capacity to bring at any given time can change. Kim is a wonderful example of this. She knows her nomadic spirit might call for a while, but she always comes back, willingly inhabits a number of different roles, and arrives as herself.

I am pleased to share what Kim has written about finding a home and developing roots at The Dale. Kim- I am grateful for and love you.

“Anyone who knows me will certainly get a good laugh to hear that my home community and church literally has no walls of its own. Kind of ironic given my nomadic spirit and need to go on adventures a few times a year. The Dale Ministries became my foundation when I could not fit in anywhere long enough to put down roots to build a home.

When I returned to Toronto after being away for several years, I needed to rebuild my life and figure out how to put down some roots. This was at the same time that Erinn needed some self-care time away from work. Since I had a background in community development work, I was able to step into an interim staff role until she was ready to return. When she returned, I decided to stay and continue to be part of the church community that had become dear to my heart, never realizing that her return would also bring a huge change to how we did things. In order to stay stable and grow we would have to leave our home base. In Erinn’s wisdom and inner strength, she knew we could do it and continue with our community while embracing our need to become mobile. So, we downsized our belongings and literally spilled out into the streets, leaving our footprints (in chalk paint) along the sidewalk. We became nomads without walls.

This change strengthened our community in ways we could never have imagined! We connected with other organizations in the neighborhood to host our drop-ins and we met in the park on sunny days and our community grew and developed into a strong extended family for many of us.

In spite of our circumstances we became stable in our mobility, looking out for each other and “breaking bread” with one another when our hunger for spirit and community needs were high. And we grew! We have continued to grow, even reaching a point where we have needed to take on additional people to help in order to continuously build around our shared community needs. We now have an outreach team which I feel so honoured and proud to be part of.

I now have ROOTS. I now have a home base that has embraced my quirkiness and I have developed strong WINGS because of it. I still have my adventures and yet I also now have my foundation in my spirit as I return to a community that embraces me as I am. Ironically I am the most stable I have been in my life and I am so grateful for how the Dale Ministries has shown me the light at the end of the tunnel, and that I can now say I am home and WE are family!

Blessings, Kimberley”

Erinn and Kim

Keeping it Real on a Sunday

It’s a Sunday at The Dale. The first thing we do is get the “nave” ready, otherwise known as the sanctuary, for our gathering at 2 pm. Songbooks are placed in every other row. A small wooden table is positioned at the front, on which we put two plates: one with bread and one with little plastic cups containing grape juice. There is a candle too. A community member routinely trims the wick and shaves down the sides, a skill learned earlier in life and now part of their Sunday role. A basket on a stand is placed to the left side of the table for our offering. 

There is a beautiful grand piano that I get to play during the service. Behind me is a community member who plays the guitar (he likes to call it his “godtar”), usually with an amp precariously placed on a stool. This friend prefers to do the intros and likes to wail throughout. We invite people to choose songs at various points in the service. We usually start with at least three, because folks LOVE to sing at The Dale. 

We mean it when we say, “come as you are”, and so everyone arrives with a variety of things going on. Sometimes this is especially messy. It can mean having hard conversations in the foyer, or dealing with a conflict, or simply listening because someone is desperately sad, or leading a person to a spot where they can begin to sober up. Sometimes I am the one who feels overwhelmed with life, which is true on this day. 

Given all of this, we choose to start our time together in silence each week. Though the space is not always entirely quiet, the point is to begin the work of settling our own hearts and minds and re-adjusting our gaze. Then we sing, we offer one another peace (which is helpful on those days we aren’t feeling very peaceful), we are given opportunity to share what we are grateful for or are struggling with, we pray, we listen, we offer gifts (everything from money to coupons to mittens to little notes that say, “I will give a smile to everyone I see this week” or “I will help hand out the meals on Monday”), and we share communion. On this day a disagreement occurs between two people but is rectified during the prayer time with astonishing transparency and repentance. 

Today we considered the parable of the Prodigal Son. Which son do we identify with? The one who left? Or the one who stayed? We think about how we sometimes do unhealthy things that we need to stop doing, and also how we are invited to turn away from the failures, guilt, or regrets that bind us to the past, the sorrows and losses that keep us from being fully alive, or the fears that control our lives and keep our world small. We are invited into the warm embrace of God, whether we are the brother we went away, or the one who stayed. 

There is a strong rhythm to our time on Sundays, though each week is unique. We are co-creating something special: a place that is as safe-ish as possible, and where room is made for the sacred, all are welcome, and voices too often marginalized are centred. I am often moved to tears when I look around at our beautiful motley crew. They know how to keep it real and push me to do the same. For that, and our shared journey, I am deeply grateful.