By Oksana Sushko
A four-by-ten foot concrete space under Toronto’s Dundas Street bridge, covered by a sheet of bright blue tarp, is what Tom calls home. My friend Jeannie noticed the conspicuous color peeking out from under the concrete as she walked home on a particularly cold January day.
Jeannie is a long-time volunteer at St. John the Compassionate Mission in South Riverdale, where over 2000 meals are served to needy people every month.
To Fr. Roberto Ubertino, an Orthodox priest and the director of St. John’s Mission, Tom’s home is as important as that of any other parishioner. Every January, during the Feast of Theophany, Orthodox priests visit the homes of parishioners, “baptizing” them and their residents with holy water. Tom is a “parishioner” of St. John’s Mission, where he often visits to have a meal and a hot cup of coffee, or to pick up some dry gloves and socks. This afternoon, Jeannie took me and Fr. Roberto, together with hot coffee and socks, to Tom.
The concrete ledge under the blue tarp, padded with a few sleeping bags, has been Tom’s home for about seven months. His previous home had four walls and a ceiling but was demolished by real estate developers. He hasn’t been able to secure another one since. Tom lost his ID cards, so he can’t apply for social assistance or housing or receive any health care until it has been replaced. This can take several weeks or more. In the meantime, Tom’s pneumonia isn’t getting any better.
Dave, who sometimes shares space with Tom under the bridge, says he doesn’t know how Tom has survived there this long. Two nights before Christmas, when temperatures plummeted, Dave decided to go to a local shelter – he felt he would freeze if he stayed outside all night. But because his shoes had gotten wet earlier that day, his frozen feet wouldn’t carry him back up the steep icy hill which is the only access to Tom’s place from Dundas Street. Dave is on a two-year waiting list for subsidized housing. He can’t go back to work as a furniture mover because the company won’t employ a person with no fixed address. Dave often visits St. John’s Mission for a hot meal and some friendly conversation.
Mike, another acquaintance of Tom’s, just got out of jail. He will also share bridge space with his friends until he “gets back on his feet.” Who knows how long that will take?
Mike bears such a striking resemblance to the actor Nicholas Cage that for a moment, I could have sworn I was a character in a movie, in a made-up script of events that we were merely acting out on this very crisp January day. Perhaps I had this sensation because the actual realities of Tom and Dave and Mike are so difficult to grasp. These men are but a few of the many people in our city whose home is cold, concrete, and ceiling-less. It does not, however, negate the well-known saying, “Home is where the heart is.” The hearts that live in these homes are beating just as loudly as those in homes with doors and windows. The reality under the bridge is no movie set. It’s a living, breathing truth, one that doesn’t come equipped with hot-buttered popcorn or a channel changer.
Tom quietly held a thin beeswax taper while we prayed for God’s blessings on his home, and Fr. Roberto vigorously sprinkled holy water on each inner “wall,” and then onto the tarp outside. I saw in Tom’s eyes a depth of understanding that did not require him to ask why we had come. When we thanked him for welcoming us, he replied, “Well, I’m always coming to your home. Now you’ve been to mine.”
Only fair, I would say. We must visit again soon.
Oksana Sushko is the Lay Pastoral Worker at St. John the Compassionate Mission, Toronto, Canada, which is under the omophorion of Metropolitan Nicholas of Amissos. Fr. Roberto Ubertino is the founder and pastor of this ministry to the poor. The mission has a web site: www.stjohnsmission.org.