The Salvation Army: Community Response Unit
The flashing amber lights are a beacon. A signal to those who call the streets home, beckoning them over for a warm drink, possibly a homemade sandwich, maybe a new pair of warm socks, but definitely for a smile and caring word.
For Cathy Harnum-Flynn, “It’s not a cup of coffee; it’s a cup of love. This is my dream job.”
As The Salvation Army’s coordinator for community outreach ministries, she has a heart as big as the community outreach unit she maneuvers around town.
The van is equipped with what Harnum-Flynn – CRU chief cook and bottle washer – needs to bring warmth and sustenance to Fort McMurray’s street population. Aside from the food, it also carries supplies of blankets and gloves, even feminine hygiene products.
“From the warmth of our hearts into the cold of the night,” she chuckles as she puts the van in gear.
She fires up the CRU about 9:30 p.m. and stays out a few hours, sometimes till midnight, sometimes 2:30 a.m. depending on weather and demand.
She loops the CRU around the lower townsite, stopping at a few locations where she knows some of the homeless hang out. She doesn’t immediately drive off, but sits and waits as it sometimes takes a few minutes for them to emerge from their hiding spots. Eventually, Harnum-Flynn parks the van in the parking lot between the Peter Pond Mall and Boomtown Casino.
Harnum-Flynn’s first winter program hit the streets in January. On this particular night during the mild spell early that month, about a dozen people come to the window; male and female, teens, middle aged and some hard to tell.
They trickle to the window, by themselves or in pairs; occasionally meeting up with someone they haven’t seen in a while.
They chat and laugh; and no matter their condition, they’re still polite and respectful; never taking more than they need, even when it comes to the socks and gloves.
“They are beyond the nicest kindest people. They have hearts of gold.”
Occasionally someone has come to the window and might swear for a little while.
“But it’s just, ‘Okay my darling. What can I do?’ You just have to be patient and it changes; their attitude changes.”
She admits being a little scared at the beginning, but that soon disappeared getting to know them.
“They’ve gotten into the things and they’ll be honest with you. The first couple of days you meet them, some of them are really standoffish. They feel you out. Then the walls come down,” she says.
“Once you break through that wall, they’ll be honest and they’ll say ‘I know I shouldn’t be doing drugs. I know I shouldn’t be drinking, but I’m in a rut.’”
She recalls one night when one very intoxicated visitor people threw a cup of soup at her.
“I thought: ‘Okay. That’s fine.’ But then, one of the other guys looked at her and said ‘You stop that. ... Cathy takes care of us. The Salvation Army takes care of us. You stop that.’
“It’s amazing to see how they look after you.”
Harnum-Flynn admits some people question why she took on this job, helping look after the homeless when there is work if they wanted it.
“The way I look at it; all of us are only a few pay cheques away from being on the street.”
She relates the tale of one man caught in a financial catch-22 after losing his job with the labourers’ union just after Christmas.
He came to the CRU window one night, gratefully accepting a cup of hot chocolate. He told Harnum-Flynn he was sleeping in his car and with the economy worsening, couldn’t afford to get back to work or an apartment.
He admitted he had no food for the next day, so she gave him some extra sandwiches, even a couple of blankets.
She reminded him to visit again if he needs something.
“That man was almost in tears. He said, ‘I don’t want to take away from anyone that really needs it.’ He said, ‘I should have been different.’
“I said, ‘You’re having a rough time. That’s what I’m here for.’ He said, ‘You don’t know how much of a blessing you are today.’”
Harnum-Flynn first got to know some of the homeless through the Salvation Army’s summer meal program. It was during that time, concern for the homeless during winter prompted a request to Major Stephen Hibbs to bring the CRU out of storage for the winter program.
“And he said ‘Absolutely.’”
It can get expensive operating a commercial vehicle. With the Salvation Army’s Christmas Kettle Drive falling short coupled with the break-in and theft at the nonprofit’s Thickwood home just before Christmas, there has been some impact on the program.
Administration costs of the program are covered by $30,000 in United Way of Fort McMurray funding and $30,000 from the Salvation Army. Funds raised through the thrift store help with the CRU’s maintenance and operation costs.
The CRU also provides assistance to whoever could do with a little comfort at emergency/disaster scenes.
Originally it was going to be for four days for the winter program, but it’s not only cold four days out of the week so seven days a week it was.
On the second night, one of her regulars from the summer appeared at the window.
“I’m like ‘How are you?’” she remembers asking, happy to see him. Harnum-Flynn recalls the conversation:
“It’s so good to see you,” he’d said.
“It’s so good to see you. Do you want a cup of a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“God, I would love a cup of coffee. It would warm my belly.”
That got her thinking there should be some way she could make some warm soup.
While the kitchen is fully equipped, she wryly notes it’s tricky to drive around town in the van with a pot of soup warming on the stove.
So she got her hands on some cans of soup with pull-tabs and Soup-on-the-Go which can be quickly warmed up in the microwave. There are some cans of stew as well, something a little heartier for the frigid nights.
A selection of sandwiches – made by Harnum-Flynn – and some little treats like chocolate mini-donuts are also ready to go.
“A sandwich to them is like a million bucks.”
She remains hopeful that a donor, private or corporate, is able to step up and provide the CRU with some much needed toques, one cold-weather essential missing from her winter trove.
During those first few weeks, she was going from her day job to the CRU without a day off.
“I’m still doing my daytime job, but I’m trying to cut back some hours, trying to get some more volunteers for the van.”
On this night, Harnum-Flynn was accompanied by volunteer Dawn Wellman, a good friend and member of the Salvation Army Church.
“There’s a need,” she says simply as to why she volunteered. “I have so much and would like to give back. It’s not a monetary thing. It’s time and caring.”
Wellman notes that it could be anyone in the next six months.
“I could be looking in a mirror. I hope not, but you never know.”
A couple of giggly teenage girls come to the window. They’re recognized as local users and it leaves Wellman unsettled. The girls are about the same age as her own daughter.
“I can’t imagine my daughter being out there.”
The girls are polite, happily telling the women, “You guys are amazing. ... You guys are beautiful souls.”
At one point in the evening, a cab driver stops by offering cash donation.
“They all have a story,” muses Harnum-Flynn. She acknowledges there are some of them that don’t want to go in the shelters all night. “When you’re in there, there are rules and regulations and some of them are just not up to that.”
Sometimes she’s asked why she gets upset or worries about these people because they’re not her family.
“Well, yes they are,” maintains Harnum-Flynn. “They’re my street family.”
Sometimes as they wander away from the window and knowing they’re on their way to some out of the way spot in the cold to sleep, she admits she finds herself wondering, “Am I going to see them again? Or is tonight the night they freeze to death?”
To lend a hand on the van or to donate, please call 780-791-3234.