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Helping homeless in tents a ‘life-giving’ experience, says Peterborough priest

By Stuart Mann

For the Rev. Canon Brad Smith, helping some homeless people in Peterborough this summer has been a bruising experience, but it has also deepened his faith and his calling as a priest.

“I’ve been ordained almost a decade and a half now and I’ve never felt more intensely connected to my vocation as I have this summer,” he says. “The experience of going out and meeting the people and listening to their stories and connecting them with the supports they need has been life-giving for me.”

Tents on the lawn of St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough.

When the weather turned warm last spring, some homeless people started sleeping in tents in the park across from St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough, where Canon Smith is the incumbent. The city asked them to leave, so he invited those who wanted to stay to camp on the church’s front lawn.

A few people took him up on his offer and set up their tents on the church’s property. The number of tents remained small until the end of June, when an overnight shelter operated by the church, The Warming Room, had to close.

The Warming Room was the only “low-barrier” shelter in Peterborough, often used by people who could not function in the city-run shelters, explains Canon Smith. “We would take anybody. As long as you were reasonable, you would have a bed to stay in that night.”

The shelter was located in another church in Peterborough and had to move because the building needed major upgrades. St. John’s, which runs a drop-in in its own building, couldn’t find another location in time and the city eventually withdrew its permission for the church to operate the shelter.

Not wanting to spend the night in the city-run shelters, many of The Warming Room’s guests and others started sleeping in tents in local parks and on St. John’s front lawn. At one point, there were 18 tents on the church’s property; as of Aug. 16, the number had gone down to 10.

Canon Smith says some residents in the neighbourhood are angry at the presence of the tents at the church. He has worked with the police to address noise and trespassing concerns and has created a Code of Conduct that the campers must adhere to.

The Rev. Canon Brad Smith

“I’ve been out there every day for at least an hour talking to all the people and building relationships and explaining the basic ground rules for staying on the church property,” he says. “They’re all welcome here as long as we all act neighbourly towards each other.”

In addition to using a patch of the church’s lawn, the campers have access to the church’s washrooms and can eat meals at the drop-in. There are shower and laundry facilities nearby, and a portable toilet has been installed for when the church is closed.

Canon Smith says the campers at the church are a peaceful, tight-knit community. “They’ve all articulated very clearly to me that none of them want to be there, that this is where they have to be because they can’t get a job or money. They’re desperate to find employment and a place to live.”

His interactions with them have been illuminating and heart-warming, he says. One of the men announced with glee that he had found a job. Another young man said no one would hire him because he had a criminal record. Four friends were planning to pool their money to rent a subsidized apartment.

Canon Smith says he has been taken aback by the level of anger directed at the campers and homeless people in general. Comments posted on the Facebook pages of local media have been particularly disturbing, he says. “Some of the comments sicken me. They dehumanize people who are struggling or are different. Some people are advocating violence against them or to physically remove them.”

Some of the comments have been directed at him and St. John’s. “I’ve gotten dozens of angry emails, and there have been angry comments on the parish’s Facebook page. We get calls all the time from people complaining about smells and needles and garbage, but when I go out there, I don’t smell or see them. I think these things get made up because people simply don’t want tents on the church’s lawn.”

He says some parishioners are upset by the tents but the church has been supportive. “Helping vulnerable people in Peterborough has been part of the culture of St. John’s for a long time, long before I got here,” he says. “Those involved in the parish’s community ministries understand that simply being nice to those in need isn’t enough. They continue to work towards a more just society, which includes advocacy for housing as a human right and developing local shelter solutions for the most vulnerable of their neighbours.”

He admits that he is “sticking his neck out” by allowing the tents on the property but says his faith compels him to act. “So much of the world now thinks of people as economic units, so if you’re not a taxpayer and you’re not contributing, you are worthless in our society and seen as an animal. Whereas, our baptismal vows call us to seek and serve Christ in all people and respect the dignity of all people.”

In mid August, the city and county passed bylaws banning tents and other structures in parks without a permit. This may cause more campers to be on the move, but Canon Smith says St. John’s will not allow any more tents on its property. “The community that is here has been here for some time. They all get along with each other and don’t want others coming in and causing a disruption.”

He says he will continue to work with the campers to find jobs and housing. “Some may have to go back into the shelter system, but I’m really hoping that in another two months, when it gets really cold, I will have been able to connect them to the people they need to get appropriate accommodation and whatever other supports they need.”

He says homeless people sleeping outside is the result of years of government cutbacks to services for vulnerable people. “This is the inevitable outcome of a society that doesn’t support people when they need it. Nobody should be surprised that we have a tent city in Peterborough this summer.”