Volunteer Laura Brown says clientelle are slow to open up – but their stories are well worth the waitBy Laura Brown
I look forward to summer for a lot of reasons.
The beach, flip flops and the beautiful sunshine turning my pale skin a shade as pink as those delicious lobsters I get to sink my teeth into just before the turn of the season. But there are others who look forward to summer for much different reasons.
“It was -21 degrees out the day we left Winnipeg. It was only October. We call it Winterpeg,” she said as she was sitting on the ground with her legs crossed, her long brown hair covered by the hood of her coat. She and her boyfriend looked to be about 24.
She wouldn’t tell me her name, but she didn’t hesitate to tell me her story.
“We have been homeless in Fredericton for about two months now. We got here January 30.We left Ottawa and wanted to hitchhike to Vancouver. After hitchhiking for awhile, we ended up in Winnipeg.”
I sat down with her, hoping she would feel more comfortable talking to me. I started working at
the Fredericton Community Kitchen October 2008. In that time I have gotten to know much of the clientele, even though it takes time for most them to open up.
The kitchen feeds anywhere from 80 to 150 people per meal three times a day.
About 200 volunteers work there monthly.
“The shelter system there really stank,” my new confidant from “Winterpeg” told me. “We ended up getting jumped in Winnipeg and got kicked out. It was so cold, we just hitchhiked back here. I love summer. It’s so much easier.”
She watched as her boyfriend got up to play hacky sack with a few other young men. There were four of them and they were all pretty good.
An older man came over and plopped down right next to me.
“You want to hear my story?” he asked. “I got no education. I’m just a crazy Newfie. But I have had a hard life and that’s why I’m up here,” he said.
He told me his name was Robert Jesso, and then he began to tell me all about that hard life.
“I had no place in St. John’s. I was there 34 years. But I had no place to go. The rent was $325 a month and all I had $295. They wouldn’t give it to me. I had to come up here to Fredericton. There was no homeless shelter for men in St. John’s. A homeless place for ladies but none for
men-,” over and over he repeated that same point persistently.
“I am 52 years old and I got to look after myself. I have only been here for two months.” He had a strong Newfoundland accent and long greying beard. He was one of the friendliest people I have ever met.
The sun was shining down as we watched the others play hacky sack. The building we were leaning up against was brick, and it looked old. The entrance doors were made of heavy metal with several secure locks.
Jesso turned his head up towards the sun and said, “I love the summer. I don’t like winter. I hate sleeping in parks or streets. But I’ve learned to stand the cold. Put two people together for heat. Buddy heat. I’m always in the cold,” Jesso sighed. “They should have a shelter in St. John’s for fucking homeless people.”
One hacky sack player walked over to where we were sitting. He sat down on the other side of
“I want you to understand that just cause you don’t have a place to live doesn’t mean you are a bad person,” he said.
“Shelters have a bad name. People automatically think just because you depend on a shelter means you steal, do drugs and are bad people. There’s not too many people around that would take someone from a shelter and let them work for you.”
He introduced himself as Dustin McCarty, and wrote his name on my clipboard for me before continuing.
“I’m going to work Monday for Tom Hughes, who is the only person that has a big name and business in Fredericton that would ever give a homeless man like me a chance here.”McCarty said.
He paused, got up and went back over to play some more hacky sack. He quickly tapped the lumpy ball away before coming back over.
“It doesn’t matter where you go there’s places and people with problems,” he said. “I have seen it and I am only 24. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to summer.”
The heavy metal door opened and people were let into the Fredericton Community Kitchen for supper.
McCarty and the others continued their game. They let me play for a bit, and tried to show me the perfect flick of the ankle. I wasn’t very good.
I asked them about the food served at the kitchen.
One replied, “Yeah, it’s okay. Kind of repetitive, but it’s good food.”
When you walk into the kitchen, a distinct smell hits you. The place is by no means fancy. It is filled with mismatched chairs and uneven tables, the walls and floor both chipped and peeling.
The people behind the counter make do with limited facilities, even at the worst of times.
There was a particular day where a middle-aged lady brought a bottle of Rev into the kitchen before supper.
She said she just wanted to use the washroom.
Our supervisor let her in as long as she left her alcohol behind on the table. Ten minutes passed before she finally came out. She immediately started to chug the rest of the Rev and looked as if she’d either fall over or throw up.
Our supervisor called the police. I was shocked. Later I found out that the lady was using drugs in the bathroom. Despite days like that, most of us really love working there.
Most people who use the kitchen are extremely grateful.
My job is to cut and divide the desserts, drinks and napkins. The client will take a tray, and come to me first if they want any of these things.
I love this job.
Who doesn’t want dessert? It’s gratifying to give a hungry person a piece of chocolate cake and see the smile that comes over their face when they receive it.
This is why I love working there. It’s not fancy, but the people you meet and the stories you hear are completely worthwhile.
Even despite the woman with the Rev.
Although, to this day, I do not use the washroom in the kitchen. It would remind me too much of that woman, and what she possibly could have done in that little room.
The other volunteers enjoy the work as well.
Audrey Cook has been volunteering at the Kitchen for two years.
“It’s about giving to the less fortunate,” Cook said. “You get to meet a lot of people and you actually get to know some regulars.”
She also likes the variety of volunteers she gets to work with – people of all walks working to help the needy.
“It’s nice to see the realm of age groups. There are teenagers all the way up to retired seniors.”
Cook, a high school teacher, said the work is an eye-opener.
“I look up and I see a kid that I recognize from the hallways of school, and they are having their supper here. It puts it in reality.”
Both the Fredericton Community Kitchen and Fredericton Homeless Shelters need a lot of money to keep their doors open. That’s not easy in this economy or any other, but it’s more than necessary.
I look forward to summer for selfish reasons. People like McCarty and Jesso look forward to summer so they can just survive comfortably, and enjoy something as simple as a round of hacky sack in the sunshine
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