London·Sounds of the Season

From a life on the streets of London, to a life of giving back - why caring makes a difference

Paul Butler was one of those estimated quarter million Canadians who experience homelessness until he was lifted out of it with support. Now he helps others find hope.

Paul Butler left a life on the streets thanks to a hand up, now he helps others find hope

Paul Butler (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Tonight, anywhere from 50 to 80 Londoners will be sleeping rough, in tents, under bridges, huddled in doorways or curled up over a steam vent to keep warm.

They're all homeless, but Paul Butler says it's "the kids," as he calls them, who really keep him up at night. 

"Sometimes they had a fight with their mother or father and they want to go back home but the parents don't want them back," he said. "I've had a few sleepless nights, just to put it lightly."

He worries because he knows that, despite their vulnerability, they're largely hidden, sleeping on friends' couches or in strangers' beds when they're not in a youth shelter or sleeping rough. 

"It's hard to hear some of the stories because you can't always help. We try to give them the resources they need." 

Butler is a volunteer relief worker with 519 Pursuit. He and his colleagues deliver everything from hats, coats and winter gloves to batteries and food to the people who are just scraping by on the fringes of the city's homeless support system. 

Paul Butler announces his presence and the delivery of hot meals outside a homeless encampment near the foot of Maitland Street in SoHo. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

It's people who sleep rough in particular that Butler seeks out. He delivers hot lunches to them in his van every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Food, dry socks, a couple of cigarettes, a friendly ear or a shoulder to cry on, are on offer daily. 

"They talk about their day or how lousy their night was or someone ripped them off or their stuff got stolen. The odd time we get a happy story. We get both sides of it, which is nice." 

Butler understands how much even the smallest act of kindness can mean to people who live on the street because it was relief workers who helped turn his life around when he came to London. 

Butler first became homeless young. His life fell apart when he was just 13. He spent three years on the streets of Toronto before moving to Sarnia, where he got married. When his marriage broke down a decade later, he ended up homeless again in London. 

Makeshift homes, such as this one near the Labatt Brewery, have become increasingly common near the downtown. So have the presence of dirty needles and the increased danger of fires. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

He was living out of his van, struggling not just to hold down a job but maintain a veneer of normalcy in front of his colleagues and bosses. 

"You get people at work saying 'You wore that three days ago and you're still wearing it. What's going on with you?' How do you explain that to an employer?"

Eventually, he found support. It was shelter workers at the Unity Project to End Homelessness who helped him get an affordable apartment. 

"I've been there ever since," he said. "If it wasn't for them, I'd probably still be living in my van."

Volunteers make deliveries to people sleeping rough at the foot of Maitland Street in London's SoHo neighbourhood. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Since then, he's been trying his best to give back, something he sees as incredibly important. 

"Yes, absolutely. It's very important to give back, help out; even if you've never been in this situation, everyone is two paycheques away from being homeless, pretty much."

Butler knows you can still look put-together even when your life is falling apart. It's something he learned through experience and it's why he'll ask a perfect stranger whether they're homeless, even when they don't look the part and it earns him a dirty look. 

"Everybody thinks all the homeless people are just stuck in doorways and run ragged. I've been homeless and I looked like I do now," he said. "I dressed nicely. I always dressed that way."

Volunteers with 519 Pursuit prepare care packages for homeless people that include a hot lunch, a snack and a bottle of water. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Homelessness comes with such stigma that it's hard to know exactly how many people are living without a private space of their own, or dangling close to the edge to losing it. The City of London said as of November, 1,650 people used the city's shelter system in some way within the previous 90 days. 

It's the kind of grinding poverty that's only poised to increase in a city that is simultaneously experiencing a pandemic in the midst of a housing crisis, where even the virus seems unable to cool a hot real estate market that just keeps getting hotter. 

The growing inequity and the lack of affordable housing means the homeless situation will likely remain long after the pandemic has ended.

Most consider it perfectly normal to see someone sleeping in the spaces where they walk, either on a downtown sidewalk or on the scraps of green space that line the Thames River, often throwing distance from the empty buildings where local property barons park their wealth. 

But then, most aren't Paul Butler. 

He says this city, with all its affluence, could end homelessness if it really wanted to, rather than tolerating people sleeping and sometimes dying on the streets. 

"I don't understand why the city hasn't just bought one of the buildings. Like, there's a couple of buildings behind the Circle K there on Wellington at Dundas."

"Why they don't just buy one of the buildings or rent one off of somebody and put everyone in there?"

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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