John Thompson arrives for his daily volunteer shift at Agape Table with a broad smile across his face, sporting a sweater and hat with a team logo. Nearly three years ago, John got word that his apartment block in Winnipeg’s north end would be renovated, resulting in a monthly rent increase from $350 to $800. With their monthly housing allowance on social assistance being a maximum of $420 between them, an amount that has stayed the same for 22 years, John and his longtime girlfriend knew they’d need to move.
“We got lucky,” John explains, because it can be extremely difficult to find subsidized housing in the city. As their eviction deadline loomed closer, the only place available was in the West Broadway neighbourhood, so he made the trek on foot to sign the papers and make the deal final. Afraid they would soon find themselves on the street if they didn’t make the move, the couple agreed to the new home even though it would require spending and extra $80 of their food budget each month. “But,” John brightens, “I got everything I need right now. I don’t have money but I can come here if I need food.”
John wandered into Agape Table shortly after making the move to West Broadway and has been returning nearly every day since, working as a faithful volunteer. He loves the people, the community, and giving back to others. “I don’t get paid for it,” he explains, “but I get paid for it in other ways.”
Throughout his sixty years, John has learned a great deal about the importance of caring for others. The oldest of 12 children, even today he finds himself regularly helping his mother and siblings, scattered around the city and across the country. “I’m the only one who knows how to put in an air conditioner!” he laughs.
Yet life hasn’t always been so stable for John. When he turned fifty, he believes God gave him the strength to turn his life around and, after years of alcoholism, he hasn’t touched a drink in a decade. He glows with pride thinking about the accomplishment. Life is difficult for John these days, but it is good. Prior to fifty, he spent many years homeless, travelling between Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Looking toward the snow falling outside the window at Agape Table, he explains the need to “be really inventive” when looking for a place to sleep in wintertime. Even in January, he’s slept in abandoned silos, barns, and warehouses. In the city, you have to sleep in intervals. “You find a good warm place, sleep for a few hours, and then some guy tells you to move on. At night, you just wander around.”
John looks sad when he thinks about the times people have misunderstood his desire to find a place to sleep. “You walk into an open door and right away they tell you to get out. Because you’re homeless, all of a sudden you’re a thief. [A homeless person] could have some mental problems.” It’s important not to put others down who live differently than you do, he explains. “If you’re not like them, you don’t exist. But I’m just like them.”
While some people look down on his volunteer work, John insists that he is not ashamed of the life he leads. He is committed to building up himself and others. Although he never finished grade eight, he went on to attend university in B.C. and to receive a certificate in cabinet making. He has four grandchildren, of which he is very proud, and a great-grandchild on the way.
Thinking about the issue of affordable housing, John says that shelters and soup kitchens across the country are “so much more crowded than they used to be.” Throughout his years of travel, he has seen the public’s approach to the homeless and insufficiently housed become less favourable. There were days when small towns welcomed him to spend the night in a public building while he was passing through, but that’s not the case any longer. “They’re all full by 7:00 [p.m.] now.”
John doesn’t look for sympathy for those days when he wandered homelessly from town to town, because he believes that was his own choice. Today, however, when he’s working hard to make a positive contribution to his community, he has no time for those who look down on his lifestyle. Some people have a harder time than others getting a job, he explains, but many of those people still have a great deal to offer. He smiles as he thinks about “the next fifty years” of his life after his miracle turn-around at 50. “It’s all about the people,” he says, “And building yourself up.”