At last February’s Barrie Film Festival Reel Stories, I watched a powerful documentary called The Overnighters about a church in North Dakota providing housing to homeless men who had come looking for oil boom jobs, only to find a community with no housing for them. Church volunteers gave over space for the men to sleep at night, provided meals, helped them access community services and find work, and otherwise bent over backwards to provide caring and support.
While the lack of housing, struggle for jobs, and general economic malaise plaguing the Land of the Free was one tragedy in the film, another was the hostility of the ostensibly Christian neighbours to the act of Christian charity the church felt compelled to undertake. A significant amount of conflict ensued, but rather than stemming from any criminal or anti-social actions by the homeless men housed at the church, it arose from neighbourhood fears about what might happen, in their worst-case darkest imaginations. Those who took part in the program or got to know the participants had their fears alleviated, but the general attitude of fear and mistrust toward those fallen on hard times remained a pervasive obstacle and always threatened to shut the program down and cast the men back into the streets.
A developing situation in North Carolina is similar, although even more disappointing. This time, a church has been housing four homeless families for the past year and a half, but now as they renovate to accommodate four more, neighbours have suddenly come forward to object to the supposed harms of something they didn’t even notice all that time. Perhaps they think that zero problems, doubled, becomes a lot of problems?
Luckily, here in Barrie, our Out of the Cold program doesn’t seem to have drawn the same kind of groundless fear of the destitute. Perhaps because the program launched in the wake of death-by-freezing of a homeless person, or perhaps because the multi-church partnership means the homeless sleep in a different neighbourhood church basement each night, for whatever reason this program was given the chance to launch. After almost two decades, it has proven that providing a minimum standard of compassionate care to those most in need doesn’t degrade our community or threaten our safety.
Which is not to say we are immune to the negative sentiments we see south of the border. Every application for a zoning change or amendment to allow multi-residential housing (apartments or townhomes) near single-family neighbourhoods draws predictable opposition, and behind the various pretexts of traffic or sightlines or environmental objections, one can usually read the coded language of hostility toward anyone too poor to purchase their own standalone house. About as often as not, such objections are overruled and the result is generally a number of new residents whose presence contributes to the community.
But despite lack of opposition, Barrie’s Out of the Cold still needs help. The greatest need is for volunteers to chaperone the guests in the evening, morning, or overnight, and within that, the need for female volunteers is greatest. So if you can find it in your heart to help out with just one shift a month, November to April, then please visit BarrieOutoftheCold.org/apply.php or call 705-331-1396 in time for training this Saturday morning.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Push on to help Out of the Cold"