Two weeks ago we published the main dates for the Triodion & Pentecostarion 2019 as a service to our readers.
The Sunday of the Last Judgment falls on March 3 this year. On that morning, Matthew 25:31-46 will be chanted solemnly in every Orthodox church around the planet. Will we—individual Orthodox believers, families, parishes, seminaries, monasteries, dioceses, national Churches—raise our eyes piously to heaven, sigh, and return to our comfortable homes to forget about this uncomfortable Gospel for another year? Or will we have the ears to hear at last the message that our path to God runs straight through every single hungry, thirsty, homeless, inadequately clothed, foreign, lonely human person who steps into our line of vision from day to day? Will we repent—in the most radical possible sense of changing our mind and turning around—even in relation to our precious money, our unnecessary possessions, our world travels?
Almsgiving is not a part-time hobby for the Orthodox Christian individual, family, parish, seminary, monastery, diocese, national Church, but our very way of life, our only life, that newness of life to which we were called when our selfish egos were buried with Christ in baptism.
It’s become insufferably trendy to inject “theosis” into every second or third sentence of our theological discourses. St. Maximus the Confessor is clear on this point: Unless we give money to the poor cheerfully every day, we have not even begun to become God.
Toronto’s story is Every City’s story. Let’s begin today, wherever God has placed us, to do what we can. We can do much more—and without much more—than we imagine.
The Rosedale Valley is a ribbon of calm winding through the bustling centre of Toronto, a natural buffer of Manitoba maples and Japanese knotweed separating the mansions of south Rosedale from the crowded towers of St. James Town. It’s also one of the few places downtown where someone can set up camp, just minutes from churches that serve hot meals, without fear of being moved along by city workers or police.
On a grey and rainy afternoon late last fall, Greg Cook headed toward the ravine on one of his regular walks. He’s a 39-year-old outreach worker at Sanctuary, a Christian charity run out of an old church near Yonge and Bloor that hosts daytime drop-ins and community meals for the homeless. Cook has long, shaggy hair, a quiet demeanour and a deep faith. He has worked with Toronto’s homeless for more than a decade, handing out sleeping bags and socks and trying to find people space in shelters. Sometimes he just goes out to talk, showing a friendly face to people who are often ignored.
Walking east along Charles Street, he passed buildings that were once inexpensive rentals and rooming houses and are now condominiums. Past Jarvis, he ducked beneath the four lanes of Mount Pleasant, scrambled down a leafy embankment and was immediately in another world. The valley felt secluded, the only noise the distant whoosh of commuters driving past and the patter of rain on leaves. There were encampments beneath every overpass—mattresses and garbage bags of possessions next to small fire pits, a wheelchair sitting stranded in the mud. At the Glen Road pedestrian bridge, beside a collection of ragged tents, someone had laid down tar paper in a futile attempt to hold back the mud. Red bike lights blinked out of a tent. A young man, naked, pulled on a pair of jeans and clambered out. “You relax,” Cook told him as the subway boomed overhead. “I’m just walking through.”
People have always camped in the ravines, but there are more doing so now than ever before. One night last April, city staff roamed Toronto’s ravines, parks and underpasses and counted 533 Torontonians sleeping outside. Several years ago, the city created the position of “parks ambassador,” a kind of security guard–meets–social worker who patrols encampments and directs the homeless to housing programs. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of encampments removed by the city doubled, and last year, another full-time ambassador and four seasonal employees were hired to manage the growing population. In the summer, workers cleared out the area under the Gardiner every few weeks, removing the couches, tents and chairs that made up the increasingly elaborate camps. Each time, after a few days, the occupants returned and started over.
Against a newly painted bridge support beneath Mount Pleasant, Cook could still see the charred smudges that marked the spot where 50-year-old Darren McKim was pulled from his burning tent in April. He died four days later at Sunnybrook Hospital. McKim had been known to outreach workers as one of the city’s chronically homeless, the technical term for people who spend more than six consecutive months without housing.
McKim’s name was added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial, an unofficial tally of people who have died as a result of homelessness, compiled by volunteers and posted at the Church of the Holy Trinity, where sombre crowds gather on the second Tuesday of each month to read aloud the names of the most recently deceased. According to officials at Toronto Public Health, who began keeping their own list in 2017, at least a hundred homeless people died that year. That’s almost two a week. Their median age is 48. After watching so many clients die over the past few years, Cook says his job has changed. His focus has become just trying to keep people alive.
Cook climbed up the muddy bank, out of the darkening valley toward the lights of Bloor. For a segment of the population, it has always been tough to make a living and pay rent in Toronto, but the vast majority were able to make it work. Now, however, Cook is seeing people who once sailed through the system getting tripped up. The people in the ravine, sleeping just a few hundred metres away from one of the richest neighbourhoods in the country, are the most visible examples of a broken housing system. As wealth fills every crevice of the downtown core, the people Cook serves aren’t just excluded from prosperity—they’re punished by it, left to watch as the city’s affordable housing options are knocked down to clear the runway for Toronto’s rapid, unstoppable ascent.
A homelessness crisis is not like a forest fire or a tornado—a disaster with a clear starting point and a logical solution. It’s closer to climate change, a gradual accretion of conditions that becomes a catastrophe before anyone is willing to acknowledge it.
Toronto is experiencing the effects of multiple trends coming to a head. Years of underinvestment in social housing from all levels of government have left the city with a 98,000-person waiting list. Soaring rental prices have far outstripped increases in wages or government support, putting enormous pressure on anyone trying to find an affordable place to live. And in the last two years, an already-overcrowded shelter system has been forced to absorb a surge of refugee claimants and people affected by the opioid epidemic.
Continue reading this article at Toronto Life.
Nicholas Hune-Brown is an award-winning, Toronto-based journalist who has appeared widely in Canadian and US publications. You can read a more complete bio at his personal blog.