By: Hannah Ziegler – July 12, 2017

It is around 11:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and I am in the Mobile Jewish Response to Homelessness (MJRH) outreach van. We are driving to one of the last stops of the night.

Having grown up in Toronto my whole life, and as a student who frequents an urban university campus, homelessness is something I unfortunately have grown accustomed to seeing regularly. But through being on the van, I discover that you can do so much more than simply give coins out of your back pocket and that often, companionship is just as valued as physical donations.

No matter the weather, the MJRH van ventures out into Toronto six days per week and stops in various areas of the city to provide those on the streets with food, clothes, hygiene supplies and a warm, listening ear. Each van shift brings together an assortment of outreach workers, volunteers and clients; no one day is the same.

MJRH outreach van

“What I love about it is that there is just a relationship that we develop over time with the clients and that there is this reliability,” one of tonight’s volunteers, Veronica Van Gogh, says.

She started volunteering with Ve’ahavta about four months ago, after moving from California where she was involved with mobile street outreach.

“I found Ve’ahavta online and I kept coming back. I meet great people every time.”

This time, she came with Vanessa Badu, whom she met through volunteering. While Vanessa came to volunteer on a whim three years ago, she agrees about the importance of this program.

The clients I see at stops range widely in age, gender and circumstance; every individual has a story to tell. Seeing teens and young adults — people my own age — without the means to achieve their potential is all at once humbling and heartbreaking, but interacting with these peers activates a further desire to build connections.

Whether it is discussing previous travels or the state of journalism today, the conversations I have with clients are intellectually stimulating, humorous and informative. You can’t help but walk away feeling conflicted; though the interactions are fulfilling, you want to do more.

The relationship the outreach workers have with the clients is especially prominent. Upon the van’s arrival at many stops, I see clients come over with a smile on their face, ready to give a high-five and be greeted by name.

“We operate and build our friendships and relationships with people so that they have our trust,“ outreach worker David Cooper tells me as he drives the van.

“When their needs are greater than what we offer on our daily van shifts, we’re able to jump into action and see if it’s something we can do directly or if there’s a referral we can make through the network that the outreach team has.”

Clients echo the appreciation for these lasting relationships. Neville Buckwell has been connected with the MJRH outreach program for four years and vocalizes gratitude for Ve’ahavta’s ongoing support.

Neville Buckwell and David Cooper chatting at an MJRH stop

“[Before Ve’ahavta, my life was] sort of up and down,” he says, sipping coffee at the van. “I’d been off and on the streets for a while.”

He tells me that due to health conditions, he was able to find housing a couple years ago.

“It was really good when I was able to get into the housing and Ve’ahavta was helping me also,” he explains as cars pass by the busy east end intersection. “They were really supportive. It’s good being in somewhere.”

The consistency of the MJRH is also a major standout. “The van being an essential service, it has to go out on its respective days,” David says. “It can’t just be kind of cancelled then show up the next day; people are depending on us.”

Outreach worker David Cooper packs clothes and supplies into the van for a Sunday shift

An estimated 30,000 marginalized people experience homelessness every day in Canada  according to a Canadian Homelessness Research Network report, and with over 5,000 in Toronto alone, this is an issue that cannot — and with approximately 600 MJRH volunteers per year, will not — be ignored. 

It may not be a quick fix, but as MJRH client Neville says, it begins with “being concerned about other people and about the human race in general.” After my experience with the van program, my concern and awareness has grown — and I’m looking forward to taking more thoughtful action with Ve’ahavta.

Find out more about how you can get involved with MJRH here!

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