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The 600th name

Bruce McLeod, former Moderator of the United Church of Canada – December 8 at Toronto’s  Homeless Memorial hosted by Church of the Holy Trinity and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee – on the occasion of adding the 600th name to the Homeless Memorial.

“When the Stranger says ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’  What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’. (T. S. Eliot)

The names on this wall, many known personally to people like Cathy Crowe, are Toronto’s rough answer to the poet’s words. They are shadows cast on the sidewalk as we rush by, cell phones in our ear. Human shadows beneath our golden towers, our endless stadiums, opera houses, theatres, and shopping malls, our rent-gouging rooming houses, our explanations that affordable housing can’t be afforded here.

When we mention the shadows at all, we call them “the homeless” – one of those abstract terms like ‘collateral damage’ which we use to distance ourselves from what we’re talking about.

The truth is, of course, there is no such thing as “the homeless’. There are only people without homes. People with names and dreams and memories, people who once were babies softening frozen faces on buses, people who ran and played, fell down and got up, laughed and cried, people with lines around their eyes and mouths, their faces marked by what the years have done to them.

By the thousands they live beside us on these rich streets. They re not “the homeless”.  They are God’s children, as we are, who have more beds in our warm houses than we use. They are our brothers and sisters, who were cold last night and every night, who have no key to lock a private place, no cupboard to keep medicine, no bathroom where they can close the door.

This morning we remember the names of people, remembered always in God’s heart while we hurry past – people who were our neighbours whom we left on winter streets to die alone in the cold.

23 years ago our mayor, reflecting widespread public heartsickness sent a message to Florida lamenting the sudden explosive death of seven astronauts.  Toronto papers also reported that same day that the frozen body of Ann Regan had been found in a stairwell where she’d slept for the past two weeks.  Four days earlier 69 year-old Ken Currie had died of exposure just down the street from her. Just weeks before that another woman, Drina Joubert had perished of cold in an alley. No message arrived from the mayor.

One of Toronto artist Bill Kurelek’s most famous paintings is of our Old City Hall. Typical of Kurelek, Jesus is on the steps, hardly noticed in the crowd his arms outstretched, the jammed Queen streetcar passing by, the towers of consumerism across the street. The painting’s title is “Toronto, Toronto”. “What is the meaning of this city?”

This morning, before this wall of names, we are reminded what we have done. Too late, we remember our friends whom we failed. We remember also that there is a dream of community in this old city that is not dead yet, and that we can do better.