Last March, when the pandemic had just begun, the City of North Bay closed its only warming centre out of fear that the virus would spread among the local homeless population. That night the temperature dropped to -20. It left many out on the street without any shelter.
That is when Katie Valiquette and her husband Chris Brown decided they would act. “When we found that out, it kind of broke our hearts,” Katie said. What they would end up doing is creating Hope’s Kitchen.
The two own and operate Flat-Rate Towing and Recovery, a tow-truck company in the City. “So what we ended up doing was opening our garage doors,” Valiquette said. “We ran a barbecue out the back door and made sure everybody had a full meal. We had set up chairs inside the garage for a place for people to go and warm up.”
They did this for two days until the City reopened its own facility. But over those two day a bond was formed between the couple and 75 or so homeless who came to get warm. “We consider them family members. They’re our street family,” she said. “A lot of them didn’t know what they were going to do or what was going to happen, much the same way that none of us did.”
Again a choice was made. They would keep helping. “We saw how grateful everybody was to have a hot meal,” she said. “We got to thinking, OK, how can we do something a little more or a little bit extra to kind of aid things along?”
For starters, they opened Hope’s Kitchen 24 hours, while the City site is only open at night. They also started hosting a donation program for warm clothes after a similar program called ‘Operation Warmth,’ that for the past 24 years has distributed coats, hats, mittens and boots in North Bay, was cancelled because of COVID-19 physical distancing requirements. (It was later restarted when a location with enough room to ensure physical distancing protocols was volunteered.)
“Since COVID, we’ve noticed that the homeless rates have gone up,” said Brown. “It’s actually quite high for little North Bay. People couldn’t afford to pay the rents, because they lost their jobs and some got evicted. So they’re on the street.”
One of those it helped was Josh Firlotte, 20, who has been living on the streets in North Bay since February. He visits Hope’s Kitchen almost every day. “This place means a lot to me,” Firlotte said. “It’s a place for me and everybody else out here to come sit, socialize, warm up, get a drink, get a snack.”
Since they opened Hope’s Kitchen, Brown has effectively had two full time jobs. “In between tow calls, I’ll come here and help out. And then if I get another tow call, I go do my tow call and come back and make sure everything’s all right,” Brown said.
Hope’s Kitchen receives some donations of money and clothing from the public, and Valiquette is trying to get charitable status, but they don’t get any financial support from the government. So the two have been funding the project on their own. Brown estimates he’s poured between $35,000 and $40,000 of the couple’s own money into the place. “It does stress me out, yeah. It’s a big undertaking,” Chris said.
This can be even more of a challenge because business isn’t booming. “Our sales are down at our towing business. I mean, we’re still keeping afloat, but it’s a little bit of a financial strain. But we do it for the people, and just to me, it’s only money.”
They also have volunteers, some even coming from the homeless community itself. Like Jessica, who recently left an abusive relationship in Ottawa and came to North Bay. She had nowhere to go, so she slept in her car.
She was taken in at Hope’s Kitchen while other locations would turn her down, and has become an advocate for the homeless since. “I don’t look at homeless people like a contagious disease, [the way] a lot of people in our society do. You know, homelessness is not a contagious disease. So people need to stop treating us like that.”
They have a GoFundMe for their volunteers, and a Facebook Page for the Kitchen. And still every evening, the couple makes soup and sandwiches for about 75 people and they take the food to the city’s overnight shelter. Still, even after all of it, Katie doesn’t see Hope’s Kitchen as anything special. “I don’t see it as an incredible act to open our doors and do these kinds of things. I don’t. I see it as this is human,” she said. “This is what humanity should be.”
She is right. Not only is this your Good News Story of the Day, which there is more to read about here. This is what caring for, and loving your neighbour looks like. It is an example of what we have been commanded to do.
Story and Image from CBC News.