Sleep Out participants prepare to brave the night cold. The event featured what may be one of the last Comfort Coats as the ministry that produces the rugged coats for the homeless struggles to find volunteers. (Nicholas Elbers photos)

After 21 years, a lifeline to the homeless is in jeopardy

By Nicholas Elbers

Among the various cardboard shelters and blanket piles that Sleep Out participants huddled under for warmth was St. Mary’s Vancouver pastor Father Joseph D’Souza, snuggled up inside what might be the last Comfort Coat ever made.

For the last 21 years, the Comfort Coats have been made by the Helpers of St. Anne and St. Joachim at Star of the Sea Parish in Surrey In the past year,  Carolyn Wharton and her hard-working volunteers produced 25-30 coats.

In the decades that the Comfort Coats have been handed out in the Downtown Eastside they have saved many lives, say Wharton, and Mildred Moy, the coordinator of St. Mary’s Street Ministry.

“We have tried out best to anticipate the needs of these dear people.”

The coats are a lifeline for people who cannot find shelter on cold nights, Moy told The B.C. Catholic. She recalls the time she and her volunteers from Catholic Street Missionaries found a man crouching down near a street corner. “Many people passed him by,” she said, and “he looked like he was drunk or high.”

The volunteers attended to him, trying to get a response from him. “We didn’t want to give up on him, but he was not responding.”

The volunteers were finally able to persuade him to take the coat, “even though it took a long time,” Moy said.

After helping him into a Comfort Coat, mittens, and scarves, the man began warming up. “He started jumping and thanking us,” Moy recounted; “he looked drunk, but really he was just freezing.”

“People do die out in the cold, so these coats are important.”

Comfort Coats have saved many lives over the years, says  Mildred Moy of St. Mary’s Street Ministry.

The coats are functional and rugged, and Wharton purposely designed them without zippers or buttons that might jam or fall off. They come with a sturdy carrying bag that has a security pocket to hold ID and other valuables.

“We have tried out best to anticipate the needs of these dear people,” Wharton told The B.C. Catholic.

She hopes the coats send homeless people the message that “we have not forgotten them, we are praying for them, and we deeply care about their suffering.”

Unfortunately due to health and life complications this will be the last year the group makes the coats unless new volunteers can be found.

Despite searching for several years, Wharton has yet to find anyone capable of handling production.

A suitable group would need to be capable of raising $6,000 annually to cover the cost of the coats while also maintaining access to sewing machines, storage, and, most importantly, the skills necessary to produce the high-quality garments.

Wharton has cast her net as wide as possible. One Comfort Coat is en route to Edmonton with recently retired Deacon Dan Ritchie where she hopes it will inspire a new group of seamstresses (or seamsters), who could start production in Alberta. 

Wharton also has a backup plan that could be implemented. For $25,000 a year, a local manufacturer could be contracted to produce hundreds of coats. Wharton said she would form a not-for-profit organization to produce the coats if the funds become available.

‘We believe it is love that heals’

Linda Noel has been wanting to participate in a Catholic Street Missionaries Sleep Out event for years but couldn’t because of work conflicts.

Now that she is retired she was grateful for the opportunity as she joined 40 people who spent the night on cold hard pavement taking part in this year’s Sleep Out.

Catholic Street Missionary volunteers prepare for this year’s Sleep Out.

The annual event offers individuals the opportunity to spend the night in solidarity with the poor by sleeping under the stars – or, if it’s raining, a collection of tarps and plastic sheets – to better understand the plight of homeless men and women in the Lower Mainland.

Those who took part said they wanted to come to a greater understanding of what homelessness feels like so so they can better serve in communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.   

The Sleep Outs are organized by Mildred Moy and the volunteers at Catholic Street Missionaries, a young adults ministry that offers spiritual and emotional support for homeless people living in the Downtown Eastside.

Sleep Out participants took part in sharing groups to discuss their expectations and experiences during the night. Linda Noel (centre) said she was finally able to take part now that she is retired.

“We don’t have strict metrics to measure our success,” Moy told the gathering, but “we believe it is love that heals.”

By working with people on the street the missionaries can see that the homeless “are the crucified Christ.”

Catholic Street Missionary volunteers Kathryn Arab and Elie Sabbagh speak with Sleep Out attendants about what to expect from the evening.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller was scheduled to say morning Mass as he has in the past but was unable to attend. He sent a video message in which he thanked the volunteers for showing their solidarity with the men and women of the Downtown Eastside.


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