It’s a brisk winter night in Halifax, and Donny is shovelling snow on Argyle Street. He’s digging out cars and clearing the sidewalk in front of The Carleton Music Bar & Grill with a metal shovel that’s “good for breaking up the ice.”
Despite the cold, Donny shovels with his bare hands. Behind him is a bag, with a sign perched on top of it that reads: “Newfy looking for a paying job.”
Most people who walk by him don’t know his story.
Brittany Harman and Matt Scott are trying to change that with a group they’ve started called Supper with Strangers. Harman is a student at Dalhousie University, and Scott attends Saint Mary’s University.
Harman says the people she has met who are living on the streets have told her most people don’t even make eye contact as they walk by.
“We want to break that by sharing a meal with them, opening up about our lives and building a friendship,” says Harman.
Supper with Strangers is a group of university students who walk the streets of Halifax to share meals and conversation with people one night a month. The first outing was in September 2015 with four people and since then the group has grown to about 30 people, with newcomers joining in each time.
They split up into groups of three or four people before they head out. The groups always ask people on the streets where they want to go, usually it’s McDonald’s or Subway. If the person doesn’t want to leave where they are sitting, they’ll bring a meal to them and eat outside together.
Scott says it’s important to recognize “there are a lot of different personalities that are out on the street. They aren’t just one big group.”
“We talk about their friends and family, and how they are doing, and they’ll ask you the same thing. That’s pretty much how any friendship starts,” says Scott. “You learn their story and why they are there. To meet someone and hear their story is a privilege.”
Donny, who asked that his last name be withheld in light of the sensitivity of his circumstances, travelled from British Columbia to Halifax a few months ago. He was trying to get as close to Newfoundland as he could because his family lives there. Donny is currently living at Metro Turning Point, but he says if you knew the place, “you wouldn’t spend much time there.”
Donny has met Harman, Scott and others from Supper with Strangers several times.
“It’s nice to be able to share the night with people. I just need to find work and suitable accommodations and then I should be OK,” says Donny. “I know I’ll get a job. People see me working hard shovelling, someone will walk by and see that.”
Despite his positivity, Donny and others who don’t have a permanent address face a number of challenges. They range from financial and health struggles, to how they are treated daily.
“I talked to a man who said he was panhandling. Someone came up to him so he thought he was going to get some change and they spat in his face,” says Harman. “They called him a dog.”
Generosity and smiles
Harman says everyone they meet is on the street for a different reason. She hopes people who they have met through Supper with Strangers will be able to walk down the street and greet each other by name.
The first time Harman and Scott went out, they met a man who was embarrassed to tell them about his living situation.
“He does have a home, but he still needs to panhandle to pay for it. He was worried about sitting too close to us because he had bedbugs,” says Harman. “Just sitting in a restaurant together was a huge deal.”
At the end of each outing, the group gathers together at Subway to debrief. Everyone is excited about the friendships they have started to build. Harman and Scott say it’s all about seeing everyone you meet in a different light.
“Even if you don’t have time to have a conversation, just look them in the eyes and smile as you go by,” says Scott. “Their generosity and smiles are things you don’t forget.”