A Place Called Home: 25 years of fighting for justice for people who are homeless
It was a chance meeting on a Monday in 1985 that would alter my life path for good. The meeting was with a young man with curly blond hair who, in many ways, looked very much like one of my own teenage sons. I was working at Fleming College at the time, coordinating a government program to help youth who had left high school and lacked job experience.
Candidates for the program filled out an application form followed by a series of interviews to determine a suitable local employer who could provide much-needed work experience.
Looking over his application I noticed that the young man had reported his address as 76 Pinto Street. Lindsay is a small town, and it was smaller in 1985. The street name was unfamiliar to me. When I asked him where Pinto Street was he confessed that he had slept in an unlocked car last night — a 1976 Ford Pinto.
Simply put, he needed a place to stay — a physical address — before he could ever start meaningful employment or training. Without this, he simply could not move forward.
After a few calls I soon learned that there were no services available to people like the young man I’d met. However, some social service agencies did express that they also, from time to time, had clients who needed shelter. We agreed that a meeting was in order.
For several years we met around kitchen tables, our small band of six people comprised of concerned citizens and folks from social service agencies. We soon found out just how big this issue was. I remember how excited we were to learn that the United Nations would be declaring 1989 the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, naively thinking this would give a big boost to our efforts. But that boost didn’t manifest from outside our community so we just continued with our own efforts, secure in the belief that housing is a basic need. Without a place to live, one is unable to find work, access services, or to feel empowered to contribute as a member of the community.
A Catalyst for Community Action
In the late fall of 1990, a family with no place to go for shelter appealed to Reverend John McMurray of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church for assistance. The now-late minister knew of our group’s efforts and called for help. This event quickly became the catalyst for meaningful action. Through the efforts of the Lindsay and District Ministerial Association, a call went out to all churches for volunteers to deal with this community need.
In February of 1991, 32 individuals showed up at our first meeting, breaking up into groups to begin the research and planning on how the faith community could help the town’s homeless. We soon realized there was no funding available, along with many zoning restrictions.
Our persistence included the task of formally incorporating ourselves into a non-profit charitable organization. Fortunately, a member of our group had a brother who was a lawyer and agreed to do this task at no cost. Then it came time to choose a name, and it needed to be something that would clearly express what we were. I still feel the name we chose was perfect because it is a universal need: A Place Called Home.
It took until May of 1993 to develop a working plan. With a plan in hand, we appealed to the church community for prayers and financial help. In an age before social media, the members of our small team spoke at functions and spread the word through their bulletins in order to gather support.
Bob Mark, owner of a farm machinery dealership and the local Post Church Envelope factory, and an active member of Queen Street United Church was a committee member, and he generously printed a special donation envelope for our use. This appeal raised $15,000 — a clear indicator that proved that once our community was aware that we had people who were homeless, it cared enough to help.
Our plan included finding partners within the current social service agencies and applying to lease a five-bedroom house on Maryknoll Street through the Ontario Housing Authority, working with the staff members at the local office. We applied for funds from the federal government to hire someone to run the operation through a job creation program, along with volunteers.
Much work took place during these formative years, including building more awareness, fundraising events, and developing policies while we waited for a house to become available.
On Jan. 5, 1995 — 25 years ago — we opened our doors to the first resident. Lorrie Polito was our project coordinator, operating the house more as a rooming house than a shelter. Services were provided out of a small closet-like office rented from the John Howard Society.
I would be remiss in acknowledging A Place Called Home’s 25th anniversary without a heartfelt thank you to Lorrie, who has guided our agency from the beginning, keeping us true to our first mission that “Everyone deserves a safe place to return to at the end of their day.”
Our shelter, which now serves all of Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton, has grown to meet increased community needs. That’s not something to celebrate in and of itself. But A Place Called Home is a unique shelter in that those who are staying there are not required to leave during the day, as is the case with most shelters. And while most shelters offer a few meals, those staying there are expected to be gone otherwise until evening. A Place Called Home provides three meals a day, including snacks, and people who find themselves there are free to call it home — day and night — while staff work diligently to find other, longer-term options for people who find themselves homeless.
I remember at some point our focus changed from a group representing various faith communities to simply a group of like-minded individuals. We came to understand that while it was our sense of charity that compelled us to take that first step of service, we had arrived at the realization that homelessness was actually more about justice — or the lack of it.
The difference is that charity is most often a spontaneous response to an accident or an event, and usually non-controversial. Justice responds to acts of people or, often, the inaction of systems. It demands that root causes be identified and removed. It typically requires persistence and a concerted effort.
Life goes on and we file away many encounters in our memories, both our successes and failures. They are touchstones for what motivates us and how we develop our core values.
I don’t know what happened to the curly-haired blond boy from long ago, who must be about 53 now. I hope he found his footing in life and is doing well.
More than anything though, I hope he found a place to call home.