We were weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic as I headed north from my home on Gloucester Street and approached the Sanctuary. I passed neatly aligned tents, a few with people relaxing on lawn chairs at the front. A dog was resting its head, open-mouthed and panting, on a human knee. A couple of younger guys were playing with a Frisbee.
The place had a bit of a campground vibe but this was not a weekend getaway. These were not city condo dwellers choosing to live rough for a night or two. These people were here because they had nowhere else to go.
Stay home. Our prime minister says it often when he gives his daily updates on Covid-19. “Stay home,” say premiers and public health officials from across our country.
Stay home. Stay safe.
Our strength is in our care for each other.
Know that your government is here for you.
I have come to appreciate the tone, energy, expansiveness and strategic flexibility so many of our leaders are demonstrating in these unprecedented times. I value how they take the time to single out specific groups to either thank for their essential service or to encourage in the face of specific hardships and grief.
I especially appreciate it when Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with warmth and directness to our children, letting them know he’s aware how hard it is for them to stay home. It is a good thing, a kind thing, to assure our children that their presence among us is noted and they are not alone.
However, living within two blocks of the Sanctuary encampment and twenty minutes away from the one at Holy Trinity, walking (as I often do) past small groups huddled in Yonge Street doorways, I am increasingly aware a segment of our society is not receiving that same message of care. How, I wonder, can a person with no home to stay in hear the message to stay home without feeling invisible to the people who are delivering it.
What, I wonder, might Prime Minister Trudeau say to help the homeless ones among us to know that, in the specific challenges this pandemic is presenting for them, they are being seen and recognized by him?
Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands often. But if you don’t have a home and you don’t have access to water…
Then what, Mr Prime Minister? Then what, Mr Premier? Then what, Mr Major? What words will you find to assure those without homes, not only that you see them, but you will play no further part in removing them from the view of others?
Some long weeks later I walk the two blocks to the Sanctuary again. It is a cold grey morning and I shiver in my too thin coat. The tent dwellers are up and about, but now there’s no hint of a campground vibe. Now everyone is grim faced and tense because they have heard the message that they must move on.
Move on. Get out off our sight.
Our property values may be diminished by your presence.
Our government is here to keep us safe from you.
The ending to this story seems inevitable as I stand there waiting. Even as I acknowledge my own feelings of helplessness, I know they are but a pale shadow of the feelings the ones under threat of being moved on must bear.
I think “There’s nothing I can do here” yet I stay. I stay as an act of resistance against a part of me that wants these people gone so I don’t have to see what the world, what our political and economic structures, has done to them.
I stay until I begin to see the home-deprived and shelter-seeking people around me being raised up in my consciousness. I stay until I remember a person who once may said something like, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but there are human ones like me who have no place to lay their heads.”
Then I get cold and go home to reflect and to write. Others go away to make phone calls and send emails of advocacy and protest.
It turns out the inevitable ending was not inevitable after all. Days later the tents are still standing at Sanctuary. With our prayers and our presence, our protest and our advocacy, may they remain there, compelling the sight of all who pass by until they aren’t needed anymore.
Written by Dianne Mesh who, on June 15, joined us at Holy Trinity as interim and part time priest-on-staff. She has a long association with Holy Trinity as a member for many years before her ordination and as interim priest-in-charge between Sara and Sherman. Dianne returns to us as a priest of almost 25 years, with rich and varied experience of parish ministry in Toronto and Saskatoon, a passion for creativity in worship, an inquiring and socially conscious mind and a deep care for the spiritual well-being of those with whom she serves. She is also an aspiring storyteller and writer.