Moose Jaw's church community is joining forces with the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan to provide food and warmth to the city's homeless population this winter.

Zion United Church is opening its doors Monday afternoons, offering a meal and a place to warm up. The John Howard Society has been bringing over clients involved with the My Place Program.

"On Mondays, we have people from our congregation that come in and spend the morning and early afternoon preparing it and getting it set up and cleaning up. We have no lack of volunteers for that," said Reverend Tim Ellis.

"I know St. Andrew's is doing the same thing now on Wednesdays. They have a small crew over there that are all from their church...We have the soup and sandwich program that we run out of John Howard's office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, where we try to get them 8-10 litres of soup every morning and 100 sandwiches right now is what we're doing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays."

The food being served at Zion on Mondays is paid for by the John Howard Society, through the My Place Program.

The church has been opening its doors for a little over a month and Ellis says they've been seeing anywhere between 25 and 35 people accessing the service every week. He notes there is also a group from Minto United Church that prepares and delivers 100 sandwiches to John Howard on Wednesdays, while on Tuesdays a group from Zion prepares and delivers 100 sandwiches. On Thursdays, Central Lutheran Church prepares and delivers another 100 sandwiches.

Central Lutheran ChurchMembers from Central Lutheran Church making sandwiches - Photo Submitted

Ellis says it will take a community effort to address the problem of homelessness in Moose Jaw.

"We have a small congregation, as does most of our mainline churches now and we want to help and we know we can't do it by ourselves...The only way it can be sustainable is if we spread out the work among many volunteers. We want it to be sustainable, certainly for this winter. We're always looking for different people who want to help."

Reverend Tim EllisReverend Tim Ellis

He notes the people who are coming through their doors are extremely grateful.

"We've had grown men in tears over having this opportunity. I've had both men and women both just being extremely thankful and expressing their gratitude that somebody welcomes them enough that they feel like they can be here without being judged, and that's a big thing for these people to have that space. It's not something they experience a lot."

The My Place Program started in the spring of 2020, right around the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The program is funded by Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy and is administered in Moose Jaw by Métis Nation Saskatchewan. The first caseworker in Moose Jaw was Jody Oakes, Manager of Justice Programming and Branch Services. 

"When it was designed, it was to help the need of homelessness and housing insecurity, food security in our community and I think at the time we thought there might be 10 or 15 people who are homeless," she said. "We knew that we had a homeless issue in our community and the population needed support and needed help and people were unhoused, but I don't think we realized the magnitude of it."

She adds the response from Moose Javians has been remarkable.

"There are so many amazing organizations coming together and just really rallying around this. Organizations that support us and just give our people everything that they can. Moose Jaw is such a great community for that. We have so many individuals that will phone and donate and drop stuff off to us or ask what can they do. Moose Jaw is just a great community and there's so much support for people. It's amazing."

Oakes notes there are 105 people that they deal with that are homeless, 75 males and 30 females. Fifty-two people identify as Indigenous.

"Our population of Indigenous people isn't huge in Saskatchewan. When you only look at that as 13 to 15 per cent of our entire population is Indigenous. When you see almost half of your homelessness in Moose Jaw, it's something we really need to look at and do what we can for those individuals because we know there's a lot of trauma there. We know there's a lot of past and so we focus on that and what can we do for those individuals."

Discover Moose Jaw recently visited Zion United Church during one of their Monday meals and had a chance to speak with some of the people who had stopped by for lunch.

The people we spoke with did not want to be identified, however they did give permission to print their comments.

"I think that's very good. I appreciate that very much and it's a nice warm place for us to go. We're always hungry. We all get to see each other and keep track of each other and socialize and just get to be warm and meet other people and see what more they could help us with," said one woman. "There are quite a bit of homeless people here and they're all quite young. It goes with the drug problem together. They're everywhere, and it's hard. You want to take them home and help everybody but you just can't. You do what you can. They're out there, they sleep in the park, anywhere they can get a little bit of shelter and it's just not right. It's not good. With these couple of blizzards, people could freeze out there."

Another man talked about the need for a warming shelter in Moose Jaw.

"There's definitely a need for that. In Regina, they have a lot of support set up for that. To have something like that here would be a lot better. If they had like 24-hour places that people could go to all day, all night. That's the big thing is trying to keep people off the street at night," he said. "You miss the little things. Once they're gone, little meals like this, it's great. A warm meal means a lot."

We asked another man to talk about the struggles of being homeless during the cold winter months.

"Every day, we like to focus on food and fuel. If you don't have any fuel before the night, you will freeze, even if you have a blanket on you. Our main goal is to try to look for food and always try to look for money to get food at the end of the day. Not only are we stressing about staying warm, we're stressing about moving around and trying to do what we can every day and honestly, with this type of community and service, it's pretty fantastic. It keeps me warm completely. I go to every single meal that they host and honestly it makes me full. The only thing I have to worry about at the end of the day is making sure I'm waterproof and snowproof."

The man talked more about Zion United Church opening its doors every Monday.

"It just means that I can go find somewhere to sit because I finally had my meal. I can relax and it makes me very happy. It's kind of a pain to get a meal during the day that's good. We have to make sure that there's always going to be services like this left and right."

Those interested in supporting The John Howard Society of Saskatchewan can call the Moose Jaw office at 306-693-0777.

Zion United Church