TORONTO — An elderly man goes through the clothing racks, looking at the frayed jeans and old sweaters. Nothing catches his eyes, so he moves past them to a row of shoes, and picks up a pair of brown leather shoes with black laces.
“Can I help you get a size?” asks the young woman behind the counter. He tries them on. She bends down to check if the shoe fits, placing her fingers at the tip of the shoe – it fits perfectly. He places the shoes in a box, but doesn’t hand her any money – because this homeless man was “shopping” at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue’s Out of the Cold program last week. The program serves meals to 100 homeless people once a week for two months, provides them with donated clothes and houses 30 homeless people one night a week.
Without programs like these, 52-year-old Matt Weymark would be sleeping on the streets of downtown Toronto, in -20 C weather, or worse. “There’s a problem – there’s no place to go,” he said. “Most of us will be sleeping outside when these programs end. It’s as easy as that.”
He wasn’t always homeless. Weymark worked as a drywall finisher for 27 years. Since he was self-employed, he wasn’t eligible for unemployment insurance when he began struggling a few months ago, and he had his driver’s licence suspended. He can’t work if he can’t drive – he needs to be able to transport his equipment to get the job done.
“I’ve always worked,” he said, lifting his head and staring straight ahead. “I don’t like charity.”
But without savings and not much family, Weymark had no place to go. On Mondays, he eats and sleeps at Beth Emeth, on Tuesdays, at a church in town, and on it goes. He’s hopeful that in May, when his court hearing comes around, he can get his licence back and start earning a living again.
The House, an educational hub and meeting place for Toronto’s young Jewish professionals, last week joined Beth Emeth to add something sweet to the Out of the Cold program: dessert. Volunteers spent five hours baking chocolate chip cookies and banana bread, which they served, as a musician played in the background. “We often recognize people’s needs, but this addresses their wants,” said Coby Segal, tzedek and social action co-ordinator of The House. “We’re here to serve people’s dignity, which is just as important as their basic survival needs. We want to recreate that experience we’ve all had – on birthdays and anniversaries when you go out to celebrate – and give it to someone else.”
This event was part of The House’s Lend a Hand series, in which young professionals volunteer their time to give back to the community. For Chanukah, they made latkes and handed them out to homeless people in Toronto as their Latkes for Chesed program.
“It’s not just learning, it’s not just volunteering. It’s synergy, it feels like both,” said Rabbi David Pardo, Jewish educational director of The House. “It’s an educational experience fused with meaning.”
That’s what draws the volunteers.
“It makes me feel good that even when sometimes you don’t feel like you’re making a visible difference, you are,” said Allison Mason, who volunteers with The House. “You learn to give up your own comfort level and give to someone else.”
And they wanted to give people living on the streets the chance to feel like those who have homes, even if it was just for one night.
As the volunteers served dessert to the guests, the musician started playing Stand By Me and one woman stood up. She clapped her hands and started dancing, shaking back and forth. She smiled, a wide, huge grin, the entire night.
Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda’s Out of the Cold program runs until Feb. 25. Large, warm adult clothing is needed. It can be dropped off at the synagogue office, 100 Elder St.