The sun is beginning to fall on a beautiful late-winter day in March. Rush hour traffic zips along on one of Halifax’s most notable roads, as The Salvation Army Community Response Unit sets up for the evening. Delivering support directly to the point of need is one of the critical missions of The Salvation Army. Few programs illustrate that better than the Cold Weather Street Ministry.
From November through March, weekly on Wednesday evenings, as well as any addition night when the temperature plummets to exceptionally cold levels, The Salvation Army’s Community Response Unit (CRU) heads out to the street to hand out hot food and interact with men and women in need.
The vehicle parks on Spring Garden Road, just outside the current downtown public library location, across from the iconic Winston Churchill statue on the lawn. The menu varies from week to week. On this day, it features homemade beef stew, ham or salami sandwiches, made to order, and muffins, served with bottled water or a hot drink (hot chocolate or tea).
“Probably be a big crowd tonight,” says Dave Jackson, the program’s lead volunteer. March is regularly the busiest month for the program. “Our numbers are always up on a nice day like this.”
Clients start arriving by 5:30 p.m. – the official start to the night – first at just a trickle. Within 15 minutes, however, the flow has become steady, and it remains so for the next hour.
Jackson is himself as much a fixture on Spring Garden Road on Wednesday nights as the truck is. Working on the program for the past six years, the majority of the clients call out to him by name during their interactions. He is joined by Dave Arsenault, a regular volunteer throughout this season. The rapport between the volunteers and the men and women receiving food is obvious, with personal updates from the past seven days flowing from both sides of the serving window.
Arsenault calls the program one of the highlights of his week.
“When everybody comes around they are always so friendly, and so appreciative of what they are getting,” he says. “We’ve been here on some pretty cold nights, and we’ll get a big crowd out and there’s a real sense of camaraderie among the folks.
“It’s a safety mechanism for them as well. They see The Salvation Army and they know that they can forget everything else for just a few minutes, have some food and conversation and regroup before carrying on.”
If you were running the truck as a business, you would quickly identify the made-to-order sandwiches as the weak link, slowing the operation down. In this case, however, this is by design. Not only do the clients experience the measure of dignity that comes with getting exactly what you want on your sandwich, the slight delay keeps them at the window and allows the volunteers opportunity to speak with them and discover any additional needs. One man mentions that he doesn’t have any gloves, and Jackson quickly slips to a storage compartment and returns with a crisp new pair for him. The team also assesses additional needs concerning shelters, and makes phone calls to refer the clients to a place for the night.
Another man, without being prompted, offers up to the pair: “I’ve been eating here for a couple of years. Thank God for this, I’ve got nothing to eat at home, but now I’ve got this.”
By the time the truck is packing up at 7:30 p.m., a pleasant late-winter day has given way to a cold, unflinching night. All told, 60 or so have visited the truck on this night, both men and women, young and old. They may not have had every need met, but at the least they received a hot meal and any needed supplies to help ward away the cold.
“It’s nice to know that on the nights you came, it made a difference for somebody,” Jackson says. “The nights you didn’t come for whatever reason – if there’s a storm and you can’t get the truck out – you feel bad because you know that somebody is missing you.”