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Extreme cold hits Belleville’s homeless hard

BELLEVILLE - Volunteers, Brenda Englefield and Kim Donald, serve dinner to people in need at a local church. The Inn From the Cold program runs for six weeks starting mid-January. Last Wednesday about 70 meals were served. [1]

BELLEVILLE – Volunteers Brenda Englefield (left) and Kim Donald serve dinner to people in need at Bridge Street United Church. The church’s Inn From the Cold program runs for six weeks starting in mid-January. Last Wednesday about 70 meals were served. Photo by Alisa Howlett

By Alisa Howlett [2]

BELLEVILLE – With the extreme cold recently most people are worried their car won’t start or they’re not wearing enough layers. Not brothers Nick and Dan.

The brothers, who declined to give their last name, worry about where they are going to sleep. Each night they sleep outdoors.

“The other morning I woke up in a pile of snow,” Nick said.

Nick and Dan were among those seeking food and shelter at Bridge Street United Church last Wednesday.

Starting in mid-January, through its Inn From the Cold program, the church prepares hot meals each evening and offers a safe environment for people in need. The doors open at 4 p.m. and close at 6:30 p.m. The program runs for six weeks.

Mel Plewes, the volunteer who serves as chief cook for Inn From the Cold, said the numbers vary on a nightly basis. Wednesday night around 70 meals –vegetable-barley soup, hamburger stew, coleslaw, garlic mashed potatoes, cheese cornbread, apple crisp for dessert, and coffee and tea – were served.

A regular diner, Esbert Smallpiece, said fewer people show up when it’s extremely cold because almost everyone walks there.

Last year the program served around 8,000 meals in total.

Nick has been homeless for the last year and a half. He said he sleeps in various locations around the city each night until he is asked to leave. He spent a few nights in a sleeping bag at the Quinte dog park until he was discovered and police threatened to charge him.

“I have no other choice. I don’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “You have to come to the realization that you could lay there and freeze to death, or accept it and think positive and not freeze, hope for the best.”

Nick and Dan – who were born and raised in Belleville – don’t always spend nights together. Dan, 30, said it’s more difficult without his brother.

“(Nights are) very lonely, very depressing. You feel like the world doesn’t want you, like you’ve done something wrong. No one wants you. You’re a failure,” he said.

Growing up, he was severely physically and mentally abused at home, he said.

“My mom never hugged me as a child. If I hurt myself she would laugh at me and tell me to stop being such a b—h.”

He has been on the streets since the age of 13. He is now 27.

“I look older, don’t I? The goatee doesn’t help much, but it’s warmer,” he said.

Dan said he only has one pair of pants, one shirt, one jacket, a toque and a pair of mittens.

On a good day begging for change, the pair will make $40 each. They say the hours are long and draining. Not many people are out giving change in the extreme cold. On one day last week they didn’t make any money at all.

Dan said that some evenings he contemplates committing petty crimes.

“Sometimes I think if I break a window I could go to jail, and be warm,” he said.

The only thing holding him back is the thought of not being able to see his children if he ended up in jail. Dan has seven children, while Nick has four. Both are estranged from the children’s mothers.

Belleville does not have an overnight shelter for homeless men. The closest one is in Kingston.

“How are we going to get there? We don’t have a car. We don’t even have a home,” Dan said.

Nick added that if there were a shelter here, it “would take away from thinking about where to sleep at night. Then we could focus on getting a job.”

The brothers have both had experiences finding work – concealing the fact that they are homeless – but being quickly fired when they failed to show up due to inadequate sleep.

Over the last few years Belleville city council has explored various efforts to curb homelessness in the area.

Councillor Pat Culhane said she wants to adopt a new strategy to get people off the streets. She said is particularly fond of Calgary’s plan to end homelessness [3] – a plan whose goal is to help people move to self-reliance and independence rather than relying on shelters. Subsidized housing is provided to the homeless and they are monitored to help them maintain permanent residences.

Culhane said that what she finds most appealing about the plan is that it does not focus on shelters.

“If you don’t have a homeless shelter, don’t build one. It’s going backwards, it stigmatizes. It just carries a lot of negative connotation,” she said.

Shelters are a Band-Aid solution to a bigger issue, she added.

“The problem is that the numbers of people who are facing homelessness are growing for a variety of reasons,” she said. “So we built a little safety net in our community and that’s what we have from (the three transitional houses with a total of 18 rooms operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association). But we can’t begin to tackle the problem as it’s growing. There has to be leadership from the provincial and federal government.”

Culhane said she is not opposed to churches opening their doors on nights of extreme cold weather, but added, “I am not in favour of a building with ‘shelter’ on the front of it. It just doesn’t fit where I’d like to go.”

Plewes, the cook at Inn From the Cold, used to run a similar overnight- program in downtown Toronto. He said Belleville’s homeless differ from Toronto’s. Here he sees more “sofa-surfers” – as opposed to people who are out on the streets – but he still thinks an overnight shelter is needed, he said.

Church programs like Inn From the Cold run on a volunteer basis and are funded by donations. Plewes said it would be costly to run an overnight shelter out of the church like he did in Toronto, so it just isn’t an option for them right now.

Nick and Dan have their own suggestion for putting roofs over people’s heads. One of the numerous abandoned buildings in the city could be turned into an overnight shelter, Dan said. The city has enough money to fund one, he said.

Meanwhile, the brothers will continue to scout out good sleeping places and deal with the embarrassment of being called “bums” and “dirtbags” from passersby.