For a week now, Pastor Pat Nixon of Calgary has been watching Canada freeze over to the point where, surely, hell must be next.
Vicious storms in the east, 30 below Celsius in the centre, -40 on any scales in the West.
“It makes me think,” he says, “that there must a lot of people going out to start their cars these days who are awfully glad to have a house.”
Nixon deals daily with those who do not: the homeless street people who need, but do not always find, what almost everyone else takes for granted. One of the regulars at Nixon’s Mustard Seed Street Ministry has just been taken to hospital, his fingers and toes so blackened by frostbite that amputation is no longer the question, just how many.
Several nights this past week, Mustard Seed squeezed as many as 330 into the various shelter rooms, roughly 80 more than the shelter is equipped to handle. The official policy, however, is not open to debate: “Anybody who comes to the door, we still let them in.”
It is a remarkable operation, widely considered one of the best, if not the best, in a land still uncertain how to come to grips with the phenomenon of its citizens wrapping themselves in old sleeping bags to sleep over hot-air vents — in the better weather.
Calgary is most assuredly not Moscow — with its 70,000 homeless and more than 300 deaths from exposure this winter — but it is a typical Canadian city of the day, with perhaps a few different ideas of what can be done to help.
Contrary to what might be expected in a province where self-sustenance is so highly admired, many Calgarians are anxious to lend a hand. In 2002, more than 5,000 volunteers pitched in at Mustard Seed. They served 370,000 meals, up from 307,000 the year before and, if the early going in 2003 is any indication, will set a new record this year.
“It just keeps growing and growing,” Nixon says. “Tonight we’ll have 700 for supper and we’re designed to take 250 — but that’s what happens when you have the best meal in town.”
Nixon is fully aware that there are those who will seize on that point. Is not free and hearty food, warmth and a roof over the head at night, they will ask, merely encouraging people to live on the streets?
Nixon would very much agree that he is in the business of “encouraging” — but not quite in the manner some might suspect.
He speaks from experience. The 42-year-old father of six ran away from home at 13 and ended up on the streets of Calgary, where members of the First Baptist Church tried to help him. It worked, for a short while, but during a similar cold snap he himself snapped: ultimately serving two years in prison for armed robbery and auto theft.
Two years later, when he was released from prison, the same church members offered help. This time it took, and today he finds himself ministering to those in the same impossible position he was once in himself.
Nixon wants not only to bring the homeless off the street for the night, he wants them back in society for life.
Mustard Seed has programs in place that include educational upgrades and small-business projects that offer paying jobs.
Nixon is most proud of an “entrepreneur program” that is set up to help the down-and-out develop their own opportunities. If it works as hoped, as many as 500 people a year could become ex-street people.
“Last week,” says Nixon, “we had two guys present their business plan to a group of about 50 Calgary business professionals. I’m talking about two guys we literally scraped off the street six months ago. Here they were, all cleaned up, both of them in suits, doing a PowerPoint presentation — and it worked. They got some financing for their idea.”
Nixon is acutely aware that, in cases like this, he is dealing with “the cream of the crop.” As he puts it, “That’s the easy part — let’s see how successful we can be with the 50 per cent of our homeless who are suffering from mental illnesses.”
In his opinion, he deals in “Band-Aid” solutions — “but the time has come to get on with the surgery.” By this he means better hospital care for the mentally ill and, most important, a national plan for affordable public housing.
In a world where pessimism seems to rule as much as cold threatens, Nixon remains an optimist.
“I often give talks in places like Vancouver and Toronto,” he says, “and they just sit there with their mouths open, then they’ll say something like, ‘Oh no, not here. It’s different here.’
“Well, I know there’s a difference — but I’m also gullible enough to think this approach can work anywhere.
“We need to have expectations for the people here.”