James limped into the Rainbow Kitchen on bandaged feet Tuesday, an upturned golf club serving as his makeshift cane.
It was his first time in the Esquimalt soup kitchen — not where he expected to be at 67 years old, not with a full working life behind him.
But neither did he expect to spend the last three months living in his Toyota Camry, sometimes going days without eating.
It was his foot problems that cost him his $2,000-a-month retail job, landing him in Royal Jubilee Hospital, where a social worker handed him a pamphlet — Greater Victoria Street Survival Guide — that directed him to the hall of Esquimalt United Church, where upwards of 150 hungry people enjoy a free lunch five days a week.
The thing is, he didn’t look out of place. There were more grey heads than dark among the diners, and a lot of people with a story like his: bad health, bad break, no pension — frightening stuff for those of us who tend to pigeonhole the poor, piously/reluctantly doing our Christmas giving safe in the belief that the world is separated into Us and Them, the latter somehow the authors of their own misfortune.
At this time of year, when every charity in Victoria (the Canada Revenue Agency lists a staggering 866 of them) seems to have its hand out, it’s tempting to get donor fatigue, become resentful, particularly when our convenient idea of what poverty looks like — loitering on a streetcorner, or working on a bottle — becomes fixed in our minds.
It’s an image that gets shattered every year when the Times Colonist Christmas Fund comes around and you see how much invisible need is out there: the working poor, people with debilitating medical conditions, people suddenly derailed by life. Could be you. Could be me.
That reality was evident Tuesday at the Rainbow Kitchen, where the lines between the helpers and the helped often blur.
The non-profit had its roots in Vic West’s St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in 2001 and moved to its current site on Lyall Street two years ago. Every day, volunteers (there are no paid staff) cook up a healthy, homestyle meal and feed whoever walks through the door. Half of the diners are from Esquimalt. The rest bus in from Vic West, Victoria, View Royal and Saanich. And yes, more and more of them are seniors.
That’s a growing trend. In November, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that while Canada has long enjoyed one of the lowest seniors-poverty rates in the world, our pension safety nets might not be safe enough.
You won’t have trouble convincing Victoria’s pensioned poor of that; one Rainbow Kitchen client, her belongings piled on her walker, spoke of buying six peaches that turned out to be bad. She couldn’t afford to waste food, but returning them to the grocery store would have meant a two-bus trip in the cold. She grimaced while describing this, as though the pain were palpable.
Then there’s James (no last name, please; “it’s a pride thing”) who spent most of his life in financial services before shifting to retail. “I’ve never not worked,” he says. That didn’t save him when his feet gave out, leaving him with nothing but his old age pension and CPP.
He has been subsisting on cookies, coffee, the occasional McWhatever. “Sometimes nothing, for three or four days at time.”
Showing up at the Rainbow Kitchen felt strange Tuesday. “It’s uncomfortable, but they’ve made me feel welcome. I see there are other people who are just as needy as I am. It sure beats sitting in the car all day or walking through the mall.”
Many of the organization’s 150 volunteers also eat there. Some are as keen on the company as the food. “People want a place to sit down, to eat, to socialize, to have someone say ‘how are you,’ ” said retired telephone operator Marianne Klos, handing out cutlery at the door.
It’s all done on a shoestring. With the work done by volunteers and most of the food donated, the operating budget is just $75,000.
Still, there’s only enough money for the next three or four months, says Sara Darling, a member of the Rainbow Kitchen board. “We need cash, desperately.”
So does the Times Colonist Christmas Fund. So does the Mustard Seed. So does Santa’s Anonymous. So does the Salvation Army. So much genuine, inconvenient need and, thankfully, so many willing to help.
How to donate
• Donate online HERE
• Call 250-995-4438, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday
• Mail or drop off in person at the Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, V8T 4M2