In the middle of trendy Osborne Village, a few blocks away from million-dollar Wellington Crescent condos, the Oak Table Ministry feeds 60 to 70 hungry people every day it's open.
Even though it was named the best neighbourhood in Canada in an online vote taken by the Canadian Institute of Planners last spring, the Village has more than its fair share of the hungry and homeless.
Luckily, they can go for lunch at Oak Table Ministry Monday to Thursday in the back hall of Augustine United Church at 444 River Ave. near Osborne Street.
"When our doors open, there are often 20 to 30 people waiting to come in," says Patricia Baker, who runs the "ministry" with a board and volunteers from many churches. She's a full-fledged minister of the United Church but she doesn't go by "Reverend" anything.
No matter what time of year, hungry people from the area -- 80 per cent of them men -- show up for sandwiches or thick soups. There are also desserts from places that donate baked goods, such as Lilac Bakery and Safeway. People are welcome to stay from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. to eat, and rest in a safe, secure environment where they are treated with kindness -- and real respect. First clue? Staff members refer to the people who come for lunch as their guests, and welcome them in as friends.
"We don't like people to call Oak Table a soup kitchen. It's so much more," explains Baker. In addition to the lunch service, Oak Table also offers (on various days) a chiropractor, a person who cuts hair and use of the office phone so people can keep in touch with family or make an appointment.
It's not a preachy place, but Baker wears a cross around her neck. Her staff includes people from several different churches. Before the doors open, volunteers who have been busily making sandwiches link arms in a circle for a quick update on important issues in their guests' lives and a minute's prayer.
After serving lunch from the canteen window, staff will often sit down with people for a short visit and to find out if they need any help. Some have immediate needs, such as feminine hygiene products or bandages for their blistered feet.
"There's no point in asking someone to walk all the way to a clinic that would see them in a neighbouring area if they have a painful blister that needs tending. That's how homeless people get places. They have to walk everywhere," says Baker.
Most homeless people do not boldly walk up and ask for things. They are, for the most part, a little shy, having been treated like nonentities -- or like dirt, in worst cases -- by the outside world. Yet they often have pressing needs, such as warm clothes, with winter coming on. Although Oak Table is not a real clothing depot, Baker's office is packed with bins of donated mitts, hats and gloves.
"Are people going to sleep out until the snowfall?" I ask a staffer.
"Some people sleep out the whole winter," is her grim answer. Substance abuse, mental illness and other problems make it hard to get a bed -- or to even want one with other people at the night shelters in town. Or maybe it's just too far to walk when you don't feel well and your feet hurt.
Do you have to pay for your lunch with religion in this United Church hall?
"We don't do that here," says Baker. "I know some places expect people to listen to a message, but we are just here if people want to talk or want a prayer.
Oak Table has a good reputation among the homeless, partly because of its nutritious fare. "People say the food here is consistently good and healthy and we make a big effort," says Glenda Knoll, the new volunteer co-ordinator for Oak Table.
People come for other reasons, too -- a kind word, contact with other people, to read a newspaper and find out what is going on.
Many have come for weeks, months and even years to sit with friends. Some choose to sit alone. Some have no choice but to be alone. The volunteers find out about their lives and how they are doing -- and call them by their names.
"We like to use names here," says Baker. People in the streets are often invisible -- nameless nobodies to the people walking by. Once a month we have a birthday cake for everyone who has a birthday."
At 3:15 p.m., as things wind down for the day, Knoll says, "If there's any food left, we send it home with people."
But sometimes there isn't even enough food to get to the end of the lunch period.
"It's an awful feeling when it's 2:30 p.m. and we can see there isn't going to be enough. We THINK we've made soup for 60 or 70, but we don't have enough for the large number of people who have shown up," says Payne.
So what do they do?
Says Knoll: "We pull together sandwiches somehow. Then we have to get out the peanut butter and Cheez Whiz, and there's usually some bread in the freezer."
They try to stockpile canned food such as tuna or salmon. It takes money to do that, and they could always do with more. It costs about $75 a day to make sandwiches -- around $1 per person.
One thing people love to get but don't get enough of is fruit, but anything hard like apples is no good. A lot of the guests have mouth and teeth issues. Softer foods like bananas are so much appreciated.
Some people become homeless who never expected they would.
Landlords will sometimes kick people out if they let a friend or a mom with a couple of children stay for a while because they don't have a place. And sometimes they give people a ridiculously short time to get out -- like a week -- and if they have no one to take them in, they end up out on the street. Even if the treatment is illegal, they don't know how to fight the system.
Some guests come to Oak Table as much for the warm human contact as the food. Michael McCracken, 47, a bright light with Asberger's syndrome who has come to Oak Table for many years, loves the place.
"I first came here on Tuesday, June 27, 2006 and I came right back the next day on Wednesday for the art program. Oak Table has become like family to me. It is my second home. I'm a very happy man," he says, as he works on one of his many mandala art projects.
When the Oak Table crew looks for new volunteers from other churches, they hand out a green card, which is referred to as a "tap on the shoulder," inviting promising-looking people to come and try helping to see if they like it.
If you would like to help the mission through volunteering or donations, contact 204-284-2250