A man who set up a non-profit food truck for people experiencing homelessness in Oshawa, Ont., is calling on city councillors to reverse their decision to boot his operation out of a parking space behind city hall — a move he and his supporters say is hurting people who badly need the service.
Ray Bond founded the Community Assisted Meals Program (CAMP) in Durham Region east of Toronto in March 2020 when most services for the homeless in Oshawa were shuttered due to the pandemic. He told CBC News CAMP had been handing out free lunches, clothing, toiletries and even pet food to about 120 people a day.
“They’re heartbroken,” said Bond, who says he was once unemployed and homeless himself but got his life back on track about four years ago. He says his clients were grateful they could eat the take-out meals wherever they wanted.
“A lot of those people don’t necessarily want to sit down in a room full of people.”
In 2018, Bond founded an organization called Durham Dignity for the Homeless, which collected and distributed donated food, clothing and other items in encampments where many of Oshawa’s unhoused people were living. He developed a network of volunteers and businesses to donate food, money and other products and operated the service out of a local park.
But he says in the fall of 2020, the city chased him out of the park because he had no permit. That’s what led him to set up CAMP, He got a permit and a used camper, which he renovated. However, that permit expired at the end of 2021 and despite Bond’s request for an extension, council decided at a March 28 meeting that he’d have to go by April 1.
Mayor Dan Carter, who has also experienced homelessness, says he doesn’t want Bond’s truck parked behind city hall because Oshawa is rebounding economically and there are now other facilities already serving the neighbourhood for those experiencing homelessness .
Statistics from Durham Region appear to back up the mayor’s claim The number of building permits issued in 2021, for instance, was the second highest in Oshawa’s history. And according to Statistics Canada, the city’s poverty rate, at 4.1 per cent, was the lowest among cities with comparable populations across southern Ontario in 2020 — and less than half that of Toronto.
But “66,100 Durham Region residents do not have enough money to buy food,” according to the region’s website. Durham also says random annual head counts indicate the number of people experiencing homelessness has more than doubled from 271 in 2017 to 573 in 2021, the bulk of them in Oshawa.
A separate month-by-month tally, also done by Durham Region, shows a steep rise in the number of people chronically unhoused, from just a handful in July and August of 2020 to more than 150 this past February.
Still, Carter notes there are at least 14 publicly funded agencies in Oshawa providing services to the needy, including the Back Door Mission, which like CAMP, is within a stone’s throw of city hall. He suggests Bond look into setting up in south Oshawa, which has fewer facilities for the unhoused.
“People say that I was homeless, I was an addict, [but] that I forgot about that time … I can tell you honestly, I’ve never forgotten about those days,” Carter told CBC News.
“But I also want to make sure that when we have the opportunity to connect people with services, that we do it properly.”
‘We have so much support’
Bond, however, maintains his service is unique because it serves lunches that can be taken away or eaten in a park, as well as groceries, toiletries and clothing. Besides, he says, it’s entirely run by volunteers and accepts no government money.
“I spent about $10,000 to $12,000 getting this meal program running on autopilot,” he said.
“Our engagement with the community is fantastic. We have so much support.”
Les Baylis, who says he was once homeless, is one of many residents who see a real need for CAMP. He says he believes the city wanted CAMP gone because it was attracting unhoused people to the downtown area, which some at city hall may have seen as a scar on Oshawa’s image.
“There used to be all kinds of people who used it and there was a reason they used it — they needed it,” he said.
“It meant everything to me,” said Ray Borg, a regular CAMP user.
“Here, there’s so much abundance … They’ve got toiletries, they’ve got toothpaste — everything that you need in one spot,” he said.
“Nobody does what this trailer does.”
Marcia White, the food bank coordinator at Kendalwood Seventh Day Adventist Church in neighbouring Whitby, Ont., says despite the mayor’s assertion that Oshawa is prospering, she’s seeing more needy people. She says just before the pandemic, the church was serving between 25 and 35 families a week. Today, she says, it’s serving 220 weekly.
“There are people out there that really need it. A lot of people have been sick because of the pandemic. Some people lost their jobs because of COVID,” White said.
“Small food banks are now becoming bigger food banks and it’s right across Durham region,” she told CBC Toronto.
For now, Bond says, he’ll continue volunteering for other Oshawa-area agencies that help feed the less fortunate. But he says he plans to apply for another permit and hopes councillors will vote in favour of granting it at next month’s meeting of the city’s community services committee.
Coun. Rick Kerr, who chairs that committee, says he sympathizes but he’s not sure Bond will get a new licence.
“I think it was providing a function — seven days a week no matter the weather,” Kerr said.
“The other side says why don’t we have [food distributors] in multiple areas so we don’t get big lineups. So I see both sides of the equation.”
But Kerr also says his first allegiance lies with people experiencing homelessness.
“Frankly, those people are human beings just like you and me, and they need to eat,” he said.
“I think it’s a necessary service.”