Guelph neighbourhood adopts homeless man who lives in Exhibition Park

Jeff Eberhardt has been a regular fixture in Guelph's Exhibition Park - he sleeps there and often helps shovel the show, prep the outdoor rink and clean up after ball tournaments. The neighbours in the area have rallied around him to offer him support.

Jeff Eberhardt sleeps in the park, but also shovels snow, cleans an outdoor rink and picks up litter

Jeff Eberhardt estimates he has been sleeping in Guelph's Exhibition Park for about 3.5 years. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Jeff Eberhardt stands under the overhang of the concession stand near the softball diamond in Guelph's Exhibition Park.

It's cold. It's lightly snowing. He has a backpack and a sleeping bag nearby.

There's an open beer tucked behind a cloth shopping bag – although Eberhardt doesn't touch it during an hour-long interview with CBC. 

A woman has brought him a container of food and left a note on top: "I hope you enjoy. I'm not the greatest chef."

"I think it's awfully kind," Eberhardt said of people helping him.

"All of a sudden, a $20 goes in my pocket, sort of thing. I say, 'I don't want that, it's not why I'm here,' but they say, 'Take it, take it' because they feel bad that I'm out here, and I just, personally anyway, don't think of it that way."

'He's extremely thankful'

Eberhardt is homeless and he regularly sleeps in the park. But rather than trying to get him kicked out, many neighbours in the area have rallied around him.

They bring him food, mittens, clothing – even a bicycle.

Pam Mundy and her family have put a Rubbermaid locker in their driveway for Eberhardt to use after Mundy learned he had been storing his stuff at a house near Victoria Road Recreation – approximately 5 km away from the park.

"I said to my partner that we could do better than that," Mundy said. "We probably could put something in our driveway so that he could store his stuff, so he didn't have to walk across town to get his basic belongings."

Mundy said she and her neighbours want to help Eberhardt because he does his part to contribute to the community, doing good deeds in Exhibition Park.

"He shovels the pathway from Kathleen to Exhibition so the strollers can get through in the winter. He helps water and shovel the ice rink. He cleans the park up after baseball tournaments when all the trash has been left around," Mundy said.

Pam Mundy stands beside a Rubbermaid locker she and her partner have provided for Jeff Eberhardt, a homeless man who regularly sleeps in Guelph's Exhibition Park. She points out a chair someone gave Eberhardt. Mundy said neighbours have given Eberhardt items including food, hot water for tea, mittens, clothing and blankets. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

He's a chatty man – could talk to a person for hours, Mundy said. People are genuinely concerned about him; when police have been called, it's just to have officers do a wellness check. They don't kick him out.

Mundy said Eberhardt appreciates the help from neighbours, even if he's unsure why people want to help him.

"He's extremely thankful that we have reached out to him because I think he feels like this is very unusual in his life," Mundy said. 

'Laid down. Fell asleep. Never left.'

When asked why he sleeps in the park, Eberhardt said it started after he broke up with a girlfriend and she had him thrown in jail.

"I didn't hurt her or I didn't do anything. Really, I didn't," he said, but did not get into the exact circumstances that landed him behind bars.

Six months later, he was out and got a bachelor apartment near downtown Guelph. He had a regular work schedule, but one day, he didn't have to work and came back to his apartment to find his landlord inside.

"He was in my place. I said f--- you, pal and I left. Just like that," Eberhardt said.

"Came here. Laid down. Fell asleep. Never left." That was about 3.5 years ago, he said.

Help is good, a home is better

Randaline Ellery, the co-ordinator of the Guelph and Wellington Taskforce for Poverty Elimination, said she likes to hear people are helping Eberhardt.

"I think it's never a bad thing for neighbours to help individuals like Jeff or others experiencing homelessness meet their short term and immediate needs," she said.

But, she added, Eberhardt needs more than mittens and warm meals.

"This kind of support is not an adequate response for what is really needed, which is safe and affordable place for him to call home. Ultimately, the solution to homelessness is housing," she said.

The taskforce advocates for basic income, health care and a national housing strategy.

It is part of 20K Homes, a national campaign to permanently house 20,000 of Canada's most vulnerable homeless people by July 1, 2018.

An initiative that could mean a home for Eberhardt that isn't a bench in Exhibition Park.