From streets to Sanctuary

Patrick Sullivan dedicates his life to raising awareness about marginalized people to youth in the GTA

The lines etched on Patrick Sullivan’s face are evidence of a difficult life.

Each crevice holds a memory of his 55 years.

At 11, Sullivan ran away from an abusive home in London, Ont. and headed for the big city lights of Toronto.

Before long, he was a sex worker.

It was a habit Sullivan found difficult to break.

“It wasn’t easy and probably until I was about 22 or 23, every time I would come to Toronto, if someone would offer me money for sex, I’d say: ‘Yeah, why not,’” he said.

Sullivan managed to finally let go of sex work when he started to see himself “as a person and not a commodity.”

Today, Sullivan dedicates his life to raising awareness about marginalized people to youth in the GTA through his business Bridges for Youth 2.

By sharing his story and experiences of life on the streets, Sullivan paints a vivid picture of the harsh realities faced by some Canadians.

He does this by leading students and youth on walks around the Yonge and Church area.

Sullivan’s student walks start at the Toronto AIDS memorial in Barbara Hall Park with a discussion on HIV/AIDS, homophobia and safe sex.

He humanizes the discussion by talking about a friend who was diagnosed with HIV years ago.

The walk continues to Buddies in Bad Time Theatre on Alexander Street and then to an area off Yonge Street known as Boys Town.

Sullivan speaks candidly about female and male street-level prostitution, what makes youth vulnerable to the techniques of pimps and the importance of looking for warning signs such as isolation and school absence amongst peers.

He tells a story about how one year a group of students on his walk saw a former classmate who had been absent from school for a few weeks get picked up by a client right in front of them.

That moment shows how any youth can fall into prostitution, Sullivan says.

Sullivan also shares a story of a scar he got in a violent incident while working as a sex worker.

He will lift up his shirt and show it, too.

“I share it because it’s my story and I think the visualization is important,  too. It’s my story, it’s my scar, it’s my badge of saying I survived this,” he said.

Sullivan’s business, Bridges for Youth 2, operates out of a worn, historic church without a steeple nestled on the corner of Yonge and Charles streets.

The brick building is out of place in the forest of glass condo buildings surrounding it.

Inside its walls is Sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a non-denominational Christian community that opened its doors in March, 1992.

Its programs include a health clinic with onsite nurses, a drop-in centre with weekly lunches and dinners and art therapy sessions.

There is a Christian worship gathering every Sunday night.

At Sanctuary, everyone, including those who are homeless and marginalized, are welcome.

Despite its services, Sanctuary doesn’t view itself as a “service provider.”

The staff prefers the term community.

Sanctuary is made up of community members and friends, not staff and clients.

Language matters here.

“We believe in the idea of building relationships with people. When people receive dignity as a person and know their worth, the idea is that’s when they are able to pursue other, more holistic things in their lives,” said Lorraine Lam, Sanctuary’s outreach co-ordinator.

Since Sanctuary opened its doors 25 years ago, Greg Paul has been the pastor, although it’s not a term uses to describe himself.

Paul, a former missionary, prefers “spiritual caregiver” if anything, but in his eyes, he’s just another member of the community.

“If you come and share a meal here on Tuesday or Thursday, you’ll find the people who cook the meal and serve it and clean up after are mostly people who are street involved. It’s not volunteers from suburbia who are coming here to do that. It’s our community caring for each other,” Paul said.

Janice Towndrow, a 63-year-old transgender woman, found Sanctuary by chance while looking for a new church in 2010 and hasn’t looked back.

Now on the board of directors, Towndrow, who has known poverty and marginalization in her own life, feels pride in the acceptance of not only the homeless, but the LGBT community at Sanctuary.

“What defines Sanctuary for me is a line from a worship song we sing here on Sundays: ‘each one is loved the most’,” Towndrow said.

More than community and a congregation, Sanctuary is a family, a family of which Sullivan considers himself a part.

Most Tuesdays, you can see Sullivan at lunch in Sanctuary’s communal space, his well-loved backpack thrown over his shoulder.

He greets his friends with a warm hug and a smile.

Many are worn and tired from a long day on the street.

They sit down and enjoy a hot meal together.

“The thing that inspires me is that they continue to go on. They’ve seen friends murdered, they’ve seen friends die of overdoses, they’ve got no reason to really trust people, but they do. I have gotten back so much more than I think I’ve ever given just in terms of love and care and friendship,” Sullivan says.