In 2020, Circle of Friends celebrates 20 years of support and friendship for those transitioning out of homelessness.
"When I became homeless, I don’t think my friends knew how to handle me and they just walked away."
Carol is in her mid-sixties – tall, with silver hair and a kind smile. She is sharing candidly about a painful memory from over 10 years ago. “It was hurtful and it made me angry for a while because I’m still the same person. Why are you leaving me alone?” During her stay at Mary’s Place, a women’s shelter in downtown Kitchener run by the YWCA, Carol was connected with Circle of Friends. “[Mary’s Place] approached me about Circle of Friends, they asked if I needed help with budgeting or grocery shopping,” recalls Carol. “I said, ‘no, not really. What I need is friends.’”
Ten years previously, in 2000, Margaret Nally was serving both on the board of MCC Ontario and as the Chair of the YWCA in Kitchener. From this unique perspective, Marg noticed that although many women found housing and left Mary’s Place, they would come back regularly out of loneliness. Many of them would end up living back at the shelter again.
“There are many projects and programs where housing is a primary goal . . . and that is a really important part of the process,” reflects Margaret. “But housing alone, without any social support can still be a very isolating experience . . . particularly for those who have been traumatized or incarcerated or lived in shelters for any length of time.” What Margaret realized was that many of these women were not adequately prepared for living back in the community.
After deep consultation with community stakeholders, including Rick Cober Bauman, then-Director of Programs at MCC in Ontario, Cathy Middleton, manager at Mary’s Place and Jennifer Mains, manager at St. John’s Kitchen, Circle of Friends was created. Its objective was simple: to keep people housed with the power of friendship.
The model of Circle of Friends was intentionally 'unprofessional.' “We were looking for ordinary people, not social workers, or professional therapists or counsellors necessarily,” recalls Margaret. “Everyday people with good and willing hearts who wanted to be friends. That was the requirement.”
Everyday people with good and willing hearts who wanted to be friends. That was the requirement.”
- Margaret Nally
Cindy MacRae was one of those early volunteers. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have families, or whose families are no longer functioning, and so they look to friends,” notes Cindy. “Friends become their family.”
For Cindy, volunteering for Circle of Friends was personal. At the time she started volunteering, she was herself living in a rooming house, having come through her own period of homelessness. Cindy could empathize profoundly with the challenges these women were facing and was able to share her journey with them. Carol was one of the women Cindy helped support, and Carol appreciated that candor and intimacy from Cindy. “We talked about what was going on in our lives,” Carol reminisces. “We had a good time. We laughed.”
The importance of laughter and joy was emphasized by Cindy. “When you don’t have friends or family or community, you start to lose the meaning of fun. What is it? What brings you joy? That in itself is a big loss.”
In 2015, Circle of Friends expanded to support men who were in need of social community. Wayne was the first man to join the program, or, “to go where no man has gone before” as he likes to joke. He reminisced about the awkward early days when he was the only man at the larger group Circle gatherings. But he persisted and over time, was accepted – not just as a man, but as a friend. Wayne faced a new and traumatic challenge when, a few short years after leaving the shelter and finding stable housing, he found himself homeless again when the house he and four others were renting burned to the ground. Wayne lost all of his worldly possessions, but found himself richly blessed amidst the tragedy. Donations of clothing, shoes, a microwave and other necessities poured in from his Circle of Friends community and his volunteers put him up in their homes for weeks until he found a new place to stay.
After volunteering for 14 years with Circle of Friends, Cindy’s role with the program changed in 2018 in a new and rewarding way: she was hired to join the staff as a Circle of Friends Facilitator. She is almost at a loss for words as she marvels at the journey God has taken her on. “What can I say . . . it’s all a part of my story,” she says with a smile.
Today, ten years after her Circle formed, Carol and her friends, including Cindy, still meet on a monthly basis to have dinner. Their friendship has grown and changed over time. “At the beginning it was me, I was the centre of the focus,” recalls Carol. But now the relationship is more balanced and personal, they are truly just friends. “It made me stronger to know that they were there supporting me – more than anyone I had ever been friends with.”
20 years after connecting MCC and Mary’s Place shelter together, Margaret Nally is still deeply moved by what Circle of Friends represents for so many. “It’s such a gift in a world where we put a price on so much. How can you put a price on friendship? There’s such love in that space, there’s acceptance and belonging in the centre of that circle. It’s a very beautiful thing.”
Currently, over 250 people in the Waterloo Region are chronically homeless and on a waiting list for affordable housing. People are identified as experiencing chronic homelessness when they have been homeless for at least six out of the past 12 months. The definition of homelessness includes sleeping outside, sleeping in places not intended for human habitation, emergency shelters and couch surfing. The factors that lead to a person being on the streets are numerous and complex, but many struggle with mental health issues, addictions and isolation – either resulting in homelessness, or as a result of homelessness – or some combination of these factors.
Circle of Friends is currently in urgent need of volunteers who do simple but life-changing work. The commitment can be as little as an hour a week – a time to meet over coffee, go for a walk, and to have a chat.
To volunteer with Circle of Friends and give the gift of friendship, please click here.