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Answering the call to The Bench

In this Following Up feature we make a return visit to The Bench with poet, publisher and poverty activist Ed Pickersgill

You can try but you will have a difficult time getting a straight answer from Ed Pickersgill as to why he has committed so much of his time and resources to helping the poor in our community.

“I have sentenced myself to life without parole,” he said with a grin. “I’m enjoying doing my time.”

Every day like clockwork, Pickersgill loads up his dolly with storage crates full of supplies and makes his way to an otherwise nondescript, black metal bench at the top end of Wyndham Street.

“We now call this The Bench,” he said. “It is a City of Guelph bench. At a quarter to two I arrive. The bins are all self-contained on my dolly. People know I will be here at 1:45pm, seven days a week until 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock my alarm will go off. I pack up and I leave.”

The variety of food and other items varies somewhat depending on what donations he has received.

“There is always water, Ensures, Cliff Bars, Sidekicks, feminine hygiene, soap and sometimes toothbrushes,” said Pickersgill. “Today I have dogfood. That’s unusual.”

Many of The Bench regulars are homeless and many are one pay cheque away from being homeless, but they find their way there every day for some essentials and a sense of community.

“It’s like an intentional family of 140 people,” said Pickersgill. “They know it is going to be here no matter the weather. They know I will arrive whether it is snowing, raining, beating down sun or whatever.

He knows everyone by name and keeps meticulous notes on what was donated and who shows up.

“They know they don’t have to sign in because I write their names down,” he said. “Every now and then someone will say, ‘Why are you writing the names down? It’s for me so I know who is alive and who’s not in jail today. I call it my book of the living.”

A former visitor to The Bench, Richard Spies, died last October from a drug overdose but his parents David and Karen Spies haven’t forgot the support and kindness Pickersgill showed their son. When Karen’s mother Edith Bowman of Elora died at the age of 102 they donated all the leftover food from her memorial to The Bench.

“Richard loved his grandmother,” said Karen. “They both would be happy to see this food going here.”

Pickersgill was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1944 and moved to Canada with his family in 1957. He worked as a high school teacher in Lachine, Quebec for five years before moving to Guelph in 1970.

“For most of the 1970s and 1980s I was in Canadian publishing,” he said. “I was a typesetter, a graphic designer, editor and did some publishing. Most any Canadian small publisher out there knows me and I know them. I used to typeset their books – Mosaic Press, Black Moss Press, Porcupine’s Quill, Ampersand and Essays on Canadian Writing. You can just rhyme them all off.”

He ran for political office at the municipal and federal levels.

“In 1988, I ran for Guelph City Council,” he said. “That was the year they changed from, at large, to the Ward system. I remember advocating for the ward system.”

In 2000 he ran as the federal NDP candidate for Guelph.

“I did okay,” he said. “The NDP across the country got eight per cent of the vote and I got 10.6 per cent here so I was above the national average.”

His political platform focused on social justice and that has translated into the work he has done since retiring from the publishing industry.

“Retired? I don’t know what retired is,” he said as he transferred bins from his dolly to The Bench. “I am 74 years old. I’m on CPP and OAS.”

The Bench is what remains of 40 Baker, a centre Pickersgill and others operated from 2008 until 2017.

“A couple of the major tenants in the building moved out and the owners wanted me to pay for everything,” said Pickersgill. “I said I can’t so, they changed the locks on the 18th of April 2017 and on the 19th of April I was on the sidewalk.”

He maintained a scaled-down version of the service on the street in front of the 40 Baker St until October.

“In September they rented to the Church of Scientology, which wasn’t a problem for me but some of the Scientology people started to come out and meet and greet people so I moved over here,” he said. “I have a couple mottos, ‘Better small than not at all.’ and ‘Keep it simple somehow’.”

The Bench is, for the most part, an independent operation but he has maintained connections to donors.

“This is sort of a free-standing thing,” said Pickersgill. “We do work with the Out of Poverty Society Guelph. There is fundraising done there that helps with running The Bench.”

Individuals from the community as well as people from other charitable groups pitch in to help intermittently with donations and other services.

“I just like to come down here and hang out with the people,” said Kris MacQueen from the Guelph Vineyard Church. “Today I have freezies and I try to bring something that is a treat. The community of people – the sharing that happens here. It is just a beautiful thing.”

Paul Mahony has been involved in community and charitable organization in Guelph for decades and has been friends with Pickersgill just as long. He and his friends have a group called the Sandwich Club who make frequent visits and donations to The Bench

“He is doing this all by himself and now people want to help,” said Mahony. “He is more than an inspiration. He is our conscience. He keeps us all on our toes. He reminds us when our heads get too big to shrink it down and get back to reality and that is good advice. It really is.”

Pickersgill doesn’t spend a lot of time patting himself on the back or thinking about why he maintains The Bench every afternoon, 365 days a year.

“The actual real-world thing is that I have been doing this for so long – first on Wyndham Street then on Baker Street,” he said. “I had a whole lot of people depending on me for this and that so I decided I would spend a couple months on the sidewalk. Then it took root and here I am.”