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An open door in the inner city

By Jocelyn Bell

A young man wearing army pants and a puffy red jacket strides up Ferguson Ave. North toward Wesley Urban Ministries' homeless shelter. The street leading to the modern seven-storey building is more attractive than most in downtown Hamilton, Ont. Paved with interlocking red bricks and lit with old-fashioned street lamps, it seems made for tourists, not transients.

Men and women clutching mugs and grocery bags stuffed with personal belongings wander in and out of the building, sharing a cigarette and some conversation outside the shelter, and warming themselves inside its front lobby. The young man doesn't stop to chat on this Sunday winter afternoon but heads right indoors.

"It's cold out there. Mad cold," declares a dreadlocked man who has enjoyed the warmth of the lobby most of the day. "Took me 'til 6 a.m. to unthaw my feet." Outside it's a frigid -10 C. Not quite the -15 C it takes for the city's medical officer of health to declare an extreme cold weather alert. But brisk enough for Wesley Centre director Rev. Thom Davies to instruct his staff to treat it like one anyway, providing shelter to anyone who needs it -- even those barred for bad behaviour.

This United Church outreach ministry has been extending compassion for 50 years. It's the kind of compassion that doesn't wait for official orders or neighbourhood approval to serve the poor. The kind that doesn't turn people away for being drunk, high, dirty, or rude. This kind of compassion requires a gutsy sense of identity that says, we serve people who have nowhere else to go. And you don't have to like it.

The smell of mashed potatoes, roast beef and gravy comes from the dining room. Most nights, meals are buffet-style. But on Sundays, church congregations prepare the food and serve it to clients at their tables. This afternoon, a group of about 20 volunteers from Tapleytown United in Stoney Creek, Ont., cook the evening meal, just as they've done one Sunday a year since the mid-1970s. "We used to serve that awful chili with the potato flakes," remembers Erna Ridley with a shudder. Betty Rhodes adds, "We just feel we're helping people out. I think everybody should come down here for a day to see what people go through."

Keeping church members connected to Wesley Urban Ministries is important because it all began in 1955 with a weekly tea for low- income seniors in the basement at Wesley United. Over the next 25 years, Wesley expanded its programs to include services for impoverished people of all ages. "During that first half of our history, we were a completely volunteer-driven, grassroots organization. And the church was the driving force," says Paul Johnson, executive director of Wesley Urban Ministries. Meeting people's basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing came first, but government funding soon kicked in and Wesley began grappling with the root causes of poverty.

Through the 1980s and '90s, poverty in Hamilton grew more complex. Drug addiction, teen pregnancy, immigration, and unemployment rose while affordable housing grew harder to find and social assistance payments shrank.

Without giving up its shelters and soup kitchens, Wesley weathered its own storm of provincial government cutbacks, and survived to take a more sophisticated approach, tackling the difficult issues of affordable housing, health care, literacy, recreation, settlement, and immigration.

Now, 50 years and three locations after those teas for seniors, Wesley Urban Ministries is a $2.7-million corporation. Three- quarters of its funding comes from government, mostly from the City of Hamilton. Churches and individuals donate eight percent of the revenues. Wesley has 80 staff members, 1,300 volunteers, and dozens of programs operated from its flagship building, the Wesley Centre on Ferguson Ave. North, and five satellite locations.

For Johnson, the half-century mark is not only a celebration of "what you've been able to accomplish and perhaps what you'd like to do in the future," but also a reminder that widespread poverty remains. "We've needed to be here for 50 years because of what's gone on in the community. We need to remind people that we haven't achieved our vision."

What Wesley has achieved in 50 years is impressive. Its main site houses the emergency shelter for adults, an employment and education resource centre, a health clinic, a library, a chapel, laundry machines, and showers. While Wesley Urban Ministries doesn't own or operate the rent-geared-to-income apartments or townhouses on the same site, it provides life-skills training and social services for the 118 residents who live there. Wesley's five satellite locations include a youth shelter, a youth drop-in centre, a no-fee Christmas store, and a support office for immigrants who struggle with language and cultural barriers.

Its largest satellite location is a bright, cheerful community centre in the basement of an apartment complex serving a low-income neighbourhood; many residents are recent immigrants. "The goal is to bring people together," Johnson says in a hallway covered end-to-end in a mural depicting happy children of different ethnicities.

The five or six rooms and gymnasium along these corridors contain a teen drop-in centre, an after-school program, and an Ontario Early Years Centre. "Some people think I make too much of this, but this is prevention," Johnson says. "At the Wesley Centre you don't hear a lot of positive childhood experiences." But if children's needs can be met at the earliest stages of development, maybe the cycle of poverty can be broken.

Rachel Cao and her four-year-old son Greylyn are recent immigrants from China who have been coming to the community centre every Saturday for about a year, "because I was a stay-at-home mom living in an apartment and we didn't have many friends," Cao says.

Coming to the centre gives her son an opportunity to learn valuable skills, such as taking turns, following a schedule, sharing, resolving conflict, and obeying rules.

Back at the Wesley Centre an afternoon art class is under way in the same room where about 40 men will later sleep on mattresses on the floor. Art teacher Philip Grant encourages and guides a dozen students. Murray, a muscular man from Winnipeg, has created a winter landscape from carefully torn construction paper. "I have to come here each week. Phil needs his job," he jokes as he pricks holes in the black night sky to create constellations. "And I need something to help me relax."

It might seem unusual to relax in a building where 250 people come in and out each day, where the sounds of hacking coughs mix with foul language. But Johnson says his staff members have created a culture of openness that makes people feel at home. It's partly just architecture; Wesley's front reception area is the only one in the city that doesn't seal its employees behind a protective layer of glass and locked doors.

It's also the policies. The Wesley Centre is the only homeless shelter in Hamilton that's open 24 hours a day and doesn't turn anyone away. "We run a place that offers hospitality to folks no [other shelter] lets in," Davies says. "You can be falling down drunk and get in here if you can do it without picking a fight. You can be addicted to some very serious drugs and get in here and eat and find a place on the floor to sleep that's safe. Because we try to be hospitable. That comes out of the Gospel."

But Wesley's size, success, and open-door policy hasn't always been met with community approval. A decade ago, the local neighbourhood association tried to use zoning bylaws to shut the Wesley Centre down. The same group took Wesley Urban Ministries to the Ontario Municipal Board a few years later.

Wesley soldiers on but the complaints continue to this day. About a year ago, police officers visited Davies. They had just come from a neighbourhood association meeting where residents and business owners listed their three biggest complaints. The Wesley Centre was number two. Davies went to the next neighbourhood meeting to hear their concerns. "I got yelled at. There was enough anger at that meeting that a city councillor left in tears," he recalls.

In the months that followed, Davies met with Wesley's neighbours regularly to discuss their complaints and to share the ministry's purpose. Sometimes he convinced people of the shelter's necessity. Other times Davies had to stand up for its identity; or as he says: "This is who we are, folks. Get over it." Now Davies says he's welcomed warmly by the neighbourhood association. "Do they still get angry at us? Sure they do. But they've got my card and they call me. I'm seen as part of the solution to the problem. And we're not serving any fewer people or a different clientele."

It's 3 p.m. Sunday. In the front lobby, Davies strikes a small brass bowl with a stick as a call to worship. About a dozen people follow him upstairs, through the hallways and into a classroom- sized chapel. At the front are a few banners, an altar table covered in a colourful quilt, and Davies' own painting of the Wesley Centre basked in a pink light.

The group sings What A Friend We Have In Jesus and Amazing Grace, followed by the prayer of confession. Music and prayer bring the same calm to this congregation as any other. A man named Adrian, who is refreshingly uninhibited, interrupts the guest preacher several times during the sermon to challenge its premise: "Jesus is here among us today? Where? I don't see him." His comments are met with nervous snickers and a slightly flustered minister, trying to answer on the spot. The communion follows and Davies makes the sign of the cross on everyone's forehead with oil. Forgiven, rejuvenated and blessed, congregants leave the small room to face another week in a harsh world.

As they make their way back downstairs, the peace of the chapel is dissipated by the confusion and rowdiness of 200 hungry people waiting to be served a hot meal. Adrian finds a seat in the dining hall with a weathered 52-year-old named Tom and another man, about 25. Adrian announces to his small audience, "I'm a sick alcoholic picking up the pieces. And I wouldn't sleep here if they paid me $1,000. Do you want to smell stinky feet all night? "

Tom has a different perspective. He lives alone and comes to the Wesley Centre periodically to eat. "I have to get out. Cabin fever. You know." Asked if he ever had to sleep at Wesley, he says he did, for about four months, right after he got out of jail. "They fed me and let me sleep. That's it." He pauses over a mouthful of food. "Without that, I would have been out on the street."

Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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