Sally Van Helps Toronto’s Homeless Youth One Night at a Time

by John McAlister
Categories: Feature
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salvationarmy_sallyvan_volunteerIn late 2009 I volunteered on The Salvation Army’s street youth van that feeds and befriends Toronto’s homeless youth. Seven evenings a week, the “Sally Van” gives a glimpse of hope to 16 to 25-year-olds who are desperate for food, compassion and understanding.

On that brisk October evening, the old RV, equipped with a small refrigerator, microwave, stovetop, and a few comfortable seats, left its location at a Salvation Army warehouse in Scarborough for three regular stops in Toronto’s downtown core. At each spot young people awaited the van’s arrival. Some were new to the van workers, others were well-known.

I quickly met Norman, age 24. He skipped up the steps of the van giving high-fives to his peers already enjoying what, for most, was their only meal that day. He hugged the workers. It was obvious he was a regular. He plunked himself down at the small breakfast nook inside the van and inhaled a bowlful of Ravioli. He shared his story.

Norman has lived on the streets and in shelters for close to two years. Originally from New Brunswick, he was forced, as a teen, to fend for himself after his father died. This particular week he was sleeping on the floor in a friend’s run-down apartment. He complained of a sore neck and van workers promised they would bring him a pillow.

Next I noticed John. He sat quietly, with his head covered by his brown hooded sweatshirt, on a small bench below the van’s side window. Before long he waved a worker and I to the back of the van where he showed us open, infected sores covering his belly and back. This is a withdrawal symptom from using crystal meth, which has become the drug of choice for teens. He was in great pain, but refused to go to a hospital. He just wanted a hug.

Back at the breakfast nook 19-year-old Ricardo told me this was his first visit to the van. Someone on the street said he could get food here. He had been living in a shelter for three months after fleeing an abusive relationship with his stepfather. He was a clean cut, handsome young man. He rolled up both his sleeves to show me cigarette burns embedded in his skin. “My step-dad never liked me,” says Ricardo.

After serving a meal and chatting with several youth, the van moved to its next location just beyond boys’ town. This is one of the largest gay populations in North America and where young male prostitutes are. Daniel, tall and very thin, was one of the first to step into the van. He squeezed into the small nook and sat beside me. The 21-year-old was recently diagnosed with HIV. He had been sick in bed for four days and mustered up the energy to come to the Sally Van. He was a regular. He didn’t want food, just a bit of compassion and a few laughs.

These kids survive the mean streets because they all have a will to live. They know the Sally Van is safe, the one place someone is listening, and the one place someone really cares. The Sally Van is something stable in their lives when nothing else really is.

Before we closed the doors to leave for our final stop a young, barefoot and homeless man shouted from the street: “My feet are killing me. Do you have any shoes?

salvationarmy_streetyouthvan

By Linda Leigh