Home Perspectives Opinions Lielle Lichtman: Warming up a cold night for Toronto’s homeless

Lielle Lichtman: Warming up a cold night for Toronto’s homeless

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A woman eats a meal distributed by Ve’ahavta.

What if I get mugged? What if I die? Those were the hysterical thoughts running through my head, as I boarded the Ve’ahavta van to feed the homeless in downtown Toronto.

When we arrived, I was truly scared. The Ve’ahavta van is an extremely important thing, but going out until late at night is intimidating for a 12 year old. Ve’ahavta is a Jewish humanitarian response organization that gives aid to the homeless. The Ve’ahavta van drives around the city with volunteers like us, offering sandwiches, snacks, coffee, toiletries and warm clothes to men, women and children experiencing homelessness – or anyone who just needs a little help.

For my bat mitzvah project, I raised $1,000 selling slime with friends and used the money to purchase new, warm clothes and accessories for Ve’ahavta’s clients. I had previously volunteered on the van with my mom and it was an incredible experience. But that was during the day. This was at night.

After arriving at Ve’ahavta’s office, my dad and I realized we were joining a lady named Gail and a 13-year-old girl named Rachel. We also met our driver, Mukhtar. Although I was scared and confused at first, Mukhtar made me feel comfortable.

We arrived at the first stop, across the street from the Loblaws at Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue, in what appears to be a very nice neighbourhood. We were approached by three men. One had no teeth, one was on the run and one pretty much gave us his life story. He had lots of children and lots of nieces. Toronto Mayor John Tory had contacted him a few times, requesting a meeting to hear his thoughts on his living conditions and views on life.

This man has been a voice for the thousands of people roaming the streets with nowhere to go. What truly amazed me was that he has five university degrees and still ended up on the street. It was obvious to me how appreciative he was that we gave him the respect that everyone deserves. Afterwards, I realized that life isn’t fair, and it may never be, but that I had just made this man’s day, just as he made mine. That is a feeling I will never forget.

A few stops later, we approached a safe-injection site. I was scared knowing that we could encounter drug addicts or crazy people. Heading into the building, I didn’t know how much I was going to learn. Our time there went by fast, but I realized that the site provided a nurturing place where people were supported, assisted and not judged.

The next stop was outside a shelter and we could feel the cold. In -25 C windchill, we were freezing, but we never complained – not in front of people who were far less fortunate than us. After handing out coffee and hearing some not-so-nice words from the people and assuming we were going to wrap up, a young lady approached us. She looked in her mid 20s. She was funny and sweet, and we could tell how much she appreciated us validating her. She taught us how to spell our names in sign language. She won’t be forgotten – by me, or by Rachel.

Our final stop was at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. We walked into a massive building with our jaws hanging open at the sight of over 200 people. Some were sitting on cots barely a foot apart from one another. Some were getting something to eat and others were just hanging around.

I rarely complain about not having enough personal space, but the next time I do, I will take a moment and think about what I have to complain about. Rachel and I went over to a man with obvious disabilities. He expressed countless times over the 20 minutes we spoke to him how incredible we were and how we were angels.

But I didn’t feel like one. I complain about clothes, food and so many other things that I should be thankful for, and all I really did was take 20 minutes out of my privileged life to talk to him. Does that make me an angel? Yet maybe I am an angel to him, someone to validate his words and to show that I care about what he’s saying. He definitely was an angel to me.

So, to all of you out there, you could be an angel to someone, too.