Carts connect with homeless

People push large carts with supplies across Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto.
Volunteers push outreach carts across Bloor Street in Toronto, beginning another round of helping those in need.
 on May 30, 2023
Michael Hudson

Prophetic ministry turns heads in affluent neighbourhood

Along busy Bloor Street West and through the upscale streets of Yorkville, two industrial tool carts loaded with food and supplies are bringing hope and support to some of Toronto’s most vulnerable residents.

The idea was born during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Common Table drop-in, a ministry of Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St., had to shut its doors to indoor programming. “Everything had to be outside,” says Bill Ryan, Common Table’s current director. “We began serving the meals from the front of the church. They’re coming to the doors of the church almost as if to receive the Eucharist. It’s that kind of very moving experience.”

But along with those who’d been attending the drop-in’s weekday programs, the ministry’s staff and volunteers were aware of another community of people who were living on the streets as a result of the pandemic. “Shelters had to get their numbers down to provide the appropriate two-metre spacing. That put a lot of people on the street,” says Mr. Ryan, who was himself the director of a shelter at the time. “Common Table’s response to that was, let’s take the needs to the community, wherever they might be.”

What started as a response to the pandemic has now become a permanent fixture of Common Table’s ministry. Every Thursday and Friday, a group of four staff and volunteers serves sandwiches and food from the carts outside Redeemer starting at 10 a.m. Once everybody there has been served, they hit the sidewalks.

“We take them to the places we know within about a one-kilometre radius of the church where the homeless would be, many of whom we didn’t have contact with prior to going out and finding them,” says Mr. Ryan. “We go past Louis Vuitton, we go past Tiffany’s and Cartier and all the other designers. People stare at us.”

The front cart features bottled water, a variety of sandwiches, boiled eggs, baked goods, fresh fruit and granola bars. The second cart includes hot coffee, yogurt and hot oatmeal with choices of brown sugar, milk and cinnamon, along with condoms and Common Table’s newsletters.

There are more supplies inside the carts, including a medical kit, toiletries, socks and underwear, hats and gloves in the winter, safe injection kits, some clothing and sometimes sleeping bags. “We go out fully equipped. Some days nobody asks for any of that stuff – they just want the food – and other days there’s great demand for it,” says Mr. Ryan.

They take the carts east to Bay and Bloor and then further on to Yonge and Bloor, meeting homeless people whom they’ve come to know by name. A stop added to the route more recently is the Toronto Reference Library. “We actually go into the library, because especially in colder weather a lot of the homeless and near-homeless are there. They use the computers, some of them are sleeping there,” says Mr. Ryan. “The security guards welcome us now. They’re happy we’re coming.”

One or two of the Common Table group will wander through the stacks looking for people on different floors, working on information from the security guards about where unhoused people can often be found. The team typically serves 10-12 people at the library alone.

Taking to the sidewalks has let the Common Table meet people who might never stop by Redeemer. Mr. Ryan says most of them are living rough on the streets rather than in shelters, and many are dealing with severe addictions or mental illness. “You never know who you’re going to meet from trip to trip,” he says. “It’s a bit rougher than our normal days, but also very rewarding, because they are very appreciative. You made the effort to come and find me. There’s a different kind of relationship that we gradually establish. Some of them make their way back to the church on occasion, and some of them are just happy to see us Thursdays or Fridays. We’ve become part of their routine.”

As that relationship of trust has grown, some of the people receiving support from Common Table have approached staff or volunteers for help beyond basic provisions. “We’re at the point where some of them are now sitting down and having deeper conversations. We’ve known some of the women are being trafficked, and they’ve come and whispered it to the side,” says Mr. Ryan.

He’s been asked for help with getting into rehab, contacting a family member, finding medical support and other deeply personal concerns. “It’s very different, and it’s always off to the side so that nobody else can hear some of their private issues, but they have nowhere else to turn.”

Whatever the team experiences on any given trip with the outreach carts, Mr. Ryan says the gratitude of the people they encounter amazes them every time. “It’s actually very rare that somebody doesn’t stop and express their gratitude to us. Jesus had the issue of he heals 10 lepers and only one comes back; we get nine lepers who come back and only one that doesn’t,” he says.

When he considers what the future might hold for the outreach carts, Mr. Ryan says he and his team are always tinkering with how they use them. “We always go east, and we thought there are just as many homeless people west,” he says. “We’d like to try out different places with them, but then we’d be letting down people that we’ve established relationships with.”

He says they’ve considered taking the carts out on a third day, but they would need more sandwich makers and more volunteers. Between people coming to Common Table and the carts heading out in the neighbourhood, they need 150-200 sandwiches each day, all of which are made by volunteers.

He’s interested in how they can use the carts to support the local Business Improvement Area and residents’ association, with whom Common Table already has strong relationships. “What if the neighbourhood BIA had a hotline to us and said, ‘There’s a homeless person – can you go and check and help them out?’ It takes more staffing and volunteers to pull that off,” he says. “We probably don’t have storage to have three or four carts, so we have to recognize our own capacity, but there are potential other ways of doing things.”

He’d also like to explore ways of turning the outreach carts into educational tools for the community. “It already has a prophetic ministry, just our presence. We’re saying, ‘the poor are here and they’re not going away, and neither are we,’” he says. “It needs to move beyond just responding to the homeless and use it as a tool to train and educate the neighbours. And they’re open to it!”

In the meantime, Mr. Ryan says he and his team will continue to take the carts out to help meet the needs of their most vulnerable neighbours. “They will say to us, ‘You’re an angel’ or ‘You’re Jesus,’ and we’re going back to them, ‘No, I think you’re Jesus,’” he says. “We often see Jesus in the people that we’re serving, that Jesus is mingling with them before we ever get there.”

To learn more about Common Table or support its ministry, visit


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