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Staying home not an option for everyone

In this Following Up feature we return to The Bench and talk to Ed Pickersgill about his efforts to continue feeding the homeless and marginalized during the COVID-19 pandemic

The streets of Downtown Guelph were all but empty Sunday afternoon as people stayed home and made every effort to isolate themselves from the spread of COVID-19.

The vacant shops and deserted streets were an unusual sight for Ed Pickersgill, who lives downtown.

“Look down the street,” said Pickersgill. “Everything is closed.”

Everything was closed except The Bench, where 20 or 30 people had gathered to talk to Pickersgill and get something to eat.

At 1:45 p.m. every day, seven days a week, since October 2017, Pickersgill has arrived at The Bench, a non-descript city bench at the top end of Wyndham Street and set out bins filled with food, water, hygiene products and other items to give away to the poor and homeless people in the community. At 3 p.m. he packs everything up and goes home.

The steady flow of visitors Sunday appeared to be taking extra care to keep a safe distance from each other and wait their turn in line.

“I don’t line people up,” said Pickersgill. “They just lined themselves up like that.”

He said he has seen an increase in visitors since last week.

“Yesterday, Saturday, for example, is normally my slowest day,” said Pickersgill. “I normally see about 40 people. Yesterday it was 61.”

The community’s generosity has increased as well.

“I am getting a lot more donations,” he said. “Stuff is coming in. People are arriving with granola bars. We have fruit being donated and we have been purchasing fruit from the new grocery store on Macdonell. The prices are good and he gives us a little extra because he likes what we are doing.”

The Bench is a lifeline for many homeless people such as Rachel who asked that we not publish her last name. She is homeless as a result of domestic issues and addiction.

“I move around a lot and I am staying with friends when I can,” she said. “I come here every day and there is the methadone clinic and the Drop In Centre.”

She said she knows people who are sleeping in cardboard boxes, but she hasn’t had to do that yet and she is doing what she can to avoid catching the virus.

“Yes, I do worry about it,” she said. “I am using a lot of hand sanitizer.”

Tala M is both a visitor and a helper at The Bench.

“I have known Ed for 25 years,” she said. “I take stuff from The Bench and bring it to others who can’t get down here. There are times when I need stuff like water.”

Pickersgill accepts help and donations from local groups and agencies but The Bench is an independent operation that answers to no one but Pickersgill and the people who depend on him.

At the end of each day he posts a message on Facebook to thank people for donations and comment on issues of poverty and homelessness. His posts often contain criticisms presented with poetic and acidic wit. The post Sunday was no exception.

“Today’s bench update is brought to you by the Association of Canaries in Mines, flapping wings, chirping wildly and ruffling the feathers of privilege,” he wrote.

That wit surfaces in person as well when people ask about his daily routine.

“People who ask I tell them at 1:30 every day I go for a walk and I bring stuff with me because I like to carry stuff,” he said. “By the time I get to the Bench I am tired, and I put my stuff down and people take it. It makes it a lot lighter to walk home.”

As of Tuesday morning there were 503 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario and six deaths. There is one confirmed case in Guelph but Pickersgill has no plans of stopping his daily visits to The Bench until he has to.

“There isn’t a lock down,” he said. “I stay home. I live a block from here. I go for a walk and then I go home. I haven’t had anyone complain to me or criticize me or tell me to stop. My goal is to keep them (visitors to The Bench) from going six feet under.”