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On a frozen Friday night in January, Christina Usborne opens the hatch of her SUV, reaches inside and grabs a few bags of hot food.
She sees two people sitting near a heating vent in a downtown parking lot and begins the long walk over. They aren’t strangers. In fact, she knows their names and their stories.
“They both were working before COVID hit,” Usborne said. “They were forced out of their home because they couldn’t pay rent and they’re just trying to make it through another night.”
He is drying his boots on the vent and declines the pair of socks she offers, saying he’s good. But he gladly accepts the warm meal for himself and his partner.
Usborne is part of a conduit of people looking for ways they can help Edmonton’s vulnerable population.
She started her nightly deliveries in early November when the Strathcona Peace Camp, a homeless camp set up in Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in the fall, was closed down.
While volunteering at the camp, Usborne met Varinder Bhullar, who had been bringing meals to help feed the campers.
“I just saw that there was still a need to get meals out,” Usborne told CBC News.
She started a Facebook Group called Our Initiative, seeking donations of food, clothing or anything that might be needed for Edmonton’s vulnerable population.
Then she turned to Bhullar, who is also part of the free meals program that is coming out of the Dil-E-Punjab restaurant in Mill Woods.
Bhullar heard from other family members and friends who wanted to find a way to help as well and that’s where the idea for what he calls “mental meals” came from.
For four days a week, one family per day will cook a meal for 25 people. They bag it, add some fruit, granola bars, something to drink and then Usborne will pick it up and hit the streets.
Kuljit Dhaliwal and her family got involved at the very beginning. They approached Bhullar with a plan to make reusable masks, in the end they had 1,300 masks to hand out at a time when masks were hard to come by.
There were one of the first families to volunteer to help with the meals.
“I felt really happy because it’s thinking about how many people we fed in one day,” said Mannit Mann, Dhaliwal’s 13-year-old niece. “That’s 25 people, it still makes a big difference.”
The meals handed out on a cold Friday evening — a traditional Indian dish called chole bhature, which is a chickpea curry with a fluffy fried flatbread — came from Rashpal Sehmby’s family.
Sehmby is running for city council in the Sspomitapi ward, which encompasses the eastern part of Mill Woods, Tamarack and Decoteau. He became involved in the food program through this brother-in-law, who had been approached by Bhullar.
He is a practising Sikh, a religion that teaches the importance of giving back. The Gurdwara, where Sikhs gather for worship, usually have langar — a community kitchen where everyone who needs a meal is welcome to partake.
Because of the pandemic, the kitchen has been closed.
“It’s going to keep them warm,” said Sehmby about the homemade meal. “That’s going to not only make them feel happy for the food, but it’s going to keep them warm, have that nourishment to carry on for another day.”
Bhullar says there is no shortage of people who want to help the program, but you can’t just send someone out onto the streets with bags of food in hand.
“There is a lingo out on the streets. There’s ways to approach people,” Usbourne said. “There’s things that you say and you don’t say … we have to be safe ourselves.”
But with the current COVID-19 restrictions, training people is more challenging. So Bhullar is waiting for some of the restrictions to lift, then they will expand the program to seven days a week.
It’s not easy
Usborne continues her deliveries to a motel being used as bridge housing, where the person she knows needs a meal doesn’t answer her knock at the door.
Knowing there are addiction issues, she alerts the staff to do a welfare check. On this night, the person is OK, but that’s not always the case when dealing with homelessness and addictions.
“I was 14 and homeless myself for two years by choice,” Usborne said.
“I had very loving parents. I just didn’t like the rules and thought that life was easier out on the streets. And I’ll tell you, it’s not.”
That experience is one thing that keeps her going. So does the gratitude of people she’s meeting on the street.
“There’s a lot of thank-yous, a lot of blessings, but there’s a lot of tears,” she said
“I don’t want to see anybody suffer. I know what suffering is like and I don’t think people deserve to suffer.”
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