MCC Photo/Katie Taylor

Wayne and his friend Marvin at a Circle of Friends BBQ this summer.

“On summer days I would sit on this big rock in front of the men’s shelter – and people would walk by, and I could see people judging me.”

Wayne is in his early sixties, barrel-chested with a thick head of silver hair and a quick laugh. “People have no idea,” he continues, “I’m a fairly well educated person, and I’ve just run into a situation in my life where…” he pauses as if unsure how much to disclose. “I don’t know what happened,” he says finally, “when I was a young man, I never would have thought I would be where I am today.”

The 2016 Census revealed that 8,780 people in Ontario declared a shelter as their primary residence – a ten percent increase from 2011. Up until 2015, Wayne was one of those who called a shelter their home. While living at a shelter in Kitchener, his friend introduced him to MCC’s Circle of Friends program. Circle of Friends began in 2000 in the Waterloo Region to fill a need for social supports for those who were transitioning out of homelessness by recruiting volunteers to simply build relationship with participants.

“At first I was hesitant about it,” admits Wayne. “I didn’t feel like I needed someone to find me friends. I thought I was quite capable of finding friends on my own.”

But he was won over in a meeting with Circle of Friends facilitators, Katie Taylor and Marie-Paule Munyabarenzi, and decided to attend a summer BBQ event. It was an awkward start – the program was at the early stages of integrating men into the program, having previously been a service only for women, and Wayne was the first man to join the program. But he made up his mind to come to every event he could and, over time, he was accepted.

“If you come often enough they start to see you as the person that you are – not somebody that’s invading holy ground,” Wayne says with a chuckle. “Now I’m just Wayne the guy – Wayne, with the funny sense of humour – Wayne who can be charming sometimes.” It was a tough six months of trail-blazing, but eventually Wayne found his place at Circle of Friends.

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 a combination of both.

So how does friendship help?

Sometimes that’s all I need, someone to listen, I don’t need a cure.

- Wayne

It may seem counter-intuitive, but individuals receiving housing after extended periods of homelessness can actually experience increased boredom, lack of purpose and often depression. This is because though homelessness is a tough existence, there is usually a sense of community that is built out of necessity. “So even though they are now housed, these folks can often feel quite lonely and isolated, and lose the excitement of having their own place,” says Katie Taylor, Circle of Friends Program Manager. “Healthy relationships and the feeling of community connectedness are essential to help people feel content and motivated to maintain their housing.”

And this is what Circle of Friends is for Wayne. “If somebody is struggling, there’s always somebody there to say ‘we’re here to help you, you’re not in this alone,’” he says.

He calls his Circle of Friends a “sanctuary” and has nothing but praise for the volunteers and staff who run the program.  “I just love them all, they’ve been so good to me – and good to all of us.”

Wayne is now in stable housing for over three years and is giving back to the community by volunteering where he can. “When I was a young man, I had a lot of wonderful volunteer coaches that taught me things, and now that I’m older, maybe this is an opportunity that I can pay them back to convey some of the knowledge I’ve gained over my life.”

Wayne volunteers for MCC's Raw Carrot Soup Enterprise which provides meaningful employment for individuals on the Ontario Disability Support Program.MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara

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. “Sometimes that’s all I need, is someone to listen,” reflects Wayne. “I don’t need a cure.”

To volunteer with Circle of Friends and give the gift of friendship, please click here.