Volunteers have been serving a weekly dinner at Anita Place since January. (Contributed)

On Community: Dinner, dessert at Anita Place

Homelessness Action Week in October brings awareness to homelessness in Greater Vancouver.

I remember saying, “where is this camp anyway”?

I was sitting in a meeting where the topic of Anita Place Tent City was being discussed, as it had just recently sprung up. Although I did have some compassion, I really wasn’t that interested. I was quite aware of the community controversy surrounding the folks that who inhabited the Sleep Shop for the last couple of years, but to get involved in any way just seemed impossible. As it turned out, that would soon change.

The discussion continued. Then I heard the words “and they are hungry” come up.

After the meeting, I decided to ask more questions and approached one of the people at the meeting. How come they aren’t accessing the meals at the Salvation Army? Were there any churches aware of the situation? Where were the social service agencies?

What I left the conversation with was the words, “they are not just hungry, Colene – they are really hungry,” ringing through my head, and it didn’t appear like a whole lot of anything to do with meals was really going on.

There was a bit of help, a meal every second Monday was being provided. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a start.’ But most of us like three meals a day and snacks.

I couldn’t sleep. The weather had changed and frost was on the pumpkin, not to mention the fall rains. The thought of people living in my community in a tent in this weather – damp, wet – and hungry, was bothering me. I talked again to my contact.

She said: “Even bread and peanut butter would be helpful.”

OK, I could do that. How many people? Around 60, I was told. So I hauled my husband off to Costco on a Friday night and picked up several long loaves of bread and the biggest jar of peanut butter I could find. I had been told there was a table covered with tarp close to the entrance where I could leave the food.

In the morning, with fear mounting, I asked my husband to come with me to drop off the bread and peanut butter. To my surprise, he agreed and said we should pick up coffee at Tim Hortons, too. He grabbed some plastic knives as we walked out the door. Good thing as cutlery had not crossed my mind, and as I learned later the campers were short on.

When we pulled up to the camp, I said: “Walk with me, there is a table in the middle somewhere.” It was extremely quiet, with only one person was near the table. All the tents were closed up. We put the food on the table and turned around to walk out when the zipper at the top of the tent opened up a bit and someone said, “thank you.”

OK, I’d done my part, or so I thought. A good deed and what about the others? Where were the churches in this? I emailed a couple of pastors from local churches and started conversations with those who I thought might care enough to drop off some food. Bananas, I said, might be good, and water. I remember feeling frustration. I thought of the Good Samaritan story in the Bible. I thought about the fact I was sending money to other countries to feed children and families and here were people in my own community who were really hungry.

I had to work a lot at not judging on both sides, then at another meeting, a few people decided to put on a hot dog barbecue. We pooled our money, made a list and we were set. I really did not know what to expect and still I had this fear of who and what might be at the camp.

It turned out to be a good evening. The campers were very polite and orderly and thankful. It was my first time actually really meeting anyone at the camp and I was shocked at who I was serving. Two people in wheelchairs pulled up over the gravel. One man had crutches, while another was hopping around on one leg. A woman who was about 40 with a walker and who obviously had something like multiple sclerosis.

There was another woman who sat down to eat on a lawn chair. She had a roll of toilet paper with her. She was talking about her birthday coming up.

I said, “Oh, happy birthday. How old will you be? She said 43. The same age my oldest son would be in February. I kept thinking, ‘what happened and how did you get here?’

There was some progress with getting meals down there, but I knew it was not enough. I started making egg salad sandwiches, putting them in Ziplocks and dropping them off once a week. I became aware that Salvation Army started to provide lunch and a few time a week others started to provide a meal.

And just about the time I was getting tired of making sandwiches, I had friends come for dinner. The conversation that night rolled around to the camp.

At the end of the night, my friend said you know it could be us. She was referring to the fact her husband has Parkinson’s and she has a hearing disability. Both had to retire early and without the help of family could be in a bad way.

Later that week, she emailed me and asked if I would take her down there.

When we arrived, she said “it is so peaceful.”

She noted as I had that a small community had developed. Within a week, we decided to put together a weekly dinner.

Others indicated they would like to help. It started last January and we have continued to this day. It is a full dinner complete with dessert.

The amazing thing is how respectfully we are treated. The folks at the camp are always polite, thankful and orderly. This has not changed from the first day.

But what has changed is how many women we serve, and the lady with a walker? She has just moved into the new modular housing. She told me at the dinner last week she is glad she is getting to go because it is starting to get cold again.

– Colene Thompson is chair of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows-Katzie Community Network.

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