You never know when a shared meal is going to change your life.

For Allison DeBlaire, that meal was chicken soup.

She made the batch in November of 2017 and decided to give some to folks who couldn’t get into a shelter near her home.

Allison and her roommate, Amber Irvine, started to talk about how they could be more effective community members. Allison explained, “We created a donation center in our basement. And from those donations, we encourage friends around us to kind of come with us on outreaches.”

These conversations led to the roommates co-founding 519Pursuit. The non-profit takes a community-first approach to folks experiencing homelessness. Each week, a volunteer team heads out into the community to deliver three hot lunches and two cold lunches. RBC Place makes the meals, and the London Food Bank provides the funding. There are 75 meals each day, which, while notable, is not enough for the demand in services.

RBC Place makes meals that are funded by the London Food Bank for 519Pursuit. Photograph by Elizabeth McDonald.

Allison told me that consistent outreach is vital. “The most important part of our outreach is connecting with people, day in and day out… Having that consistency and reminding them of services and shelters that do have the doors open. And getting back in [to] housing.”

One part of the operation involves raising awareness. This is where the 519Pledge comes in. The pledge goal was to collect 100,000 pairs of socks, and 519Pursuit achieved that goal in three years. The first year saw around 23,000 pairs donated, and 27 000 pairs in the next. This year, 519Pursuit has collected 57,196 pairs of socks.

Another goal of the pledge is to provide space to talk about homelessness and poverty.

“Through the six weeks and however many pairs of socks we get, we understand that there’s a lot of conversations going on. And just understanding the difference that a clean pair of socks can make for somebody in their day, [and] what more we could be doing as a community,” Allison said.

The outreach team also brings care packages with PPE. The group gives out backpacks along with winter clothing, blankets, snacks, and more. 519Pursuit also supplies goods to other agencies. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced staffing across frontline agencies, affecting their ability to provide full-service support. 519Pursuit has increased its supporting role more during the pandemic.

We Get By With A Little Help From Our Friends – Just Ask Michelle

Suppose you’ve been downtown during the pandemic. You may have seen someone sleeping or standing beside billowing warm air flowing out from our city’s underbelly. I did my Christmas shopping along Richmond Row. The suffering was hard to miss.

Michelle first met Allison and Amber when she was sleeping beside one such grate. Allison and Amber showed up with blankets and kindness. They built a rapport with Michelle, providing her items when needed.

Michelle Boissonneau recovered from homelessness and addiction with help from her friends at 519Pursuit. Photography by Elizabeth McDonald.

Michelle was kind enough to speak to Fuse while volunteering. “I’ve always been somebody who had people make promises they couldn’t keep, but Allison and Amber always [keep] their promises. It built into a friendship where it was a mutual thing, you know, and I wanted to see them just as much as they wanted to see me, so I would put in the effort as well,” she shared.

Unfortunately, Michelle developed a flesh-eating disease while using substances and living outside. Allison was pregnant at the time. This compromised their ability to see each other, as Michelle wanted to keep Allison safe.

“So from there, I went to detox,” Michelle said. She went on to tell me that Allison and Amber continued to visit. They provided blankets for her when she moved into the Recovery Community Centre, where she is currently staying. Since then, Michelle has started doing outreach with 519Pursuit. “I started to be able to volunteer here because I wanted to give back to the organization and to the people that helped me out so much.”

How Can We Help?

One donor who stopped by that Saturday was Ilderton resident Susan Webb, showing the wide reach of support for 519Pursuit. Susan put up a notice about hats she was knitting on a community board, and people in Ilderton donated materials. She told me, “I just felt that it was something that I could do to help people, especially during the winter when they need to keep warm outside.”

After arriving and doing some interviews, I decided to help out with packaging goods. It felt wrong to stand around and observe while writing about a catastrophe that needs all hands on deck. We wrote a message on each plastic bag before filling them with sanitary products and PPE. Some friends came by while we were organizing items. One man needed new boots, and Michelle asked for his size before sending a volunteer to find a new fit.

Donated goods include mats weaved from milk bags, water bottles, sleeping bags, clothing, handknitted tuques and much more. Photography by Elizabeth McDonald.

A good pair of shoes is something I take for granted every day. I come to this topic from the point of privilege. I have never experienced homelessness, and I have more pairs of footwear than I need. I don’t have to worry about where I am sleeping at night or when my next doctor’s appointment is.

Other items I own help me succeed in life. I have a cellphone and an email account, both under no immediate threat of disappearing. Say I don’t have either, and I need to book an appointment to see my therapist. To set up meetings during COVID, I have to call ahead or book online for many businesses and agencies. If I don’t have a phone or access to the internet, I am immediately hamstrung. Without these vital connections, how can someone know that their new housing unit is available?

Allison made clear to me that these are the systemic barriers her friends are coming up against.

When I asked her advice for anyone wanting to help out, she suggested interested community members get involved with one of London’s organizations. However, she underlined the importance of believing in their mission.

“You have to be prepared to be their friend 24 hours a day, not just when you have, for example, 519Pursuit on your shirt and you’re doing outreach.” She said that this is important because “the whole idea is, I’m a community member who is caring and I literally want you to be my friend… I want you to trust this friendship so that one day when we see you housed, you feel confident that there [are] members in the community where you can reintegrate.”

To volunteer, please email contact@519pursuit.ca or find what they’re collecting for their care packages on their website.

Feature photo of co-founder Allison DeBlaire by Elizabeth McDonald.

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