Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Helping Hand

When the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers gave Michael J. Burke, P.Eng. an award for community service earlier this year, they called the range of his activities "astounding." Burke has his ...

August 1, 1999  Canadian Consulting Engineer

When the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers gave Michael J. Burke, P.Eng. an award for community service earlier this year, they called the range of his activities “astounding.” Burke has his own consulting engineering firm which specializes in concrete and masonry repair in Halifax. But as a volunteer he has mentored at a blind school, is national vice-president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, started an organization to develop small enterprises for the poor, and runs a community newspaper for the homeless. He is also a director of Hope Cottage, Halifax’s oldest soup kitchen. Canadian Consulting Engineer asked him about this work.

Q. What is it like on the front lines of the soup kitchen?

We’re open in the mornings for soup and sandwiches and we have a sit-down meal, a hot supper, at five o’clock at night. We are not open during the day mainly because we just don’t have the facilities. We are in a very small building, but we’re constructing an extension. There are about 30 volunteers at any one time, and we serve about 200 meals a day.

We average probably a couple of fights a year; it’s not bad. We don’t allow people in who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One of the people we won’t let in because invariably, no matter what we do, she will start a fight, is Doris. We give her a hot meal wrapped up to take home. Doris is in her 50s now so she’s getting a little slower, but she’ll beat you up as quick as blink — men, police it doesn’t matter. I’ve never had a problem with her. I’ve always talked to her in calm tones and she usually just wants a couple of bucks, nothing outrageous.

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Q. Do you think the people using soup kitchens bring their trouble on themselves?

Some of them do, nobody denies that. But when you look at the effects of globalization, you realize that if someone is not educated beyond grade 12, the chances of getting a full-time job that they can survive on are growing slimmer. The unemployment rate in Cape Breton is something like 30 per cent and getting worse.

I’d say less than five per cent are abusing or playing the system. Most people are just plain down and out. If you delve into the welfare system and what people are forced to live on — it’s impossible. Single able-bodied people in Halifax receive $350 a month in allowance. Of that the government considers $225 as a living allowance, but you can’t find a room for $225 which is suitable to put your cat in. You are probably going to spend $300 to get a single room. That leaves you with $50 a month for everything else, which is ridiculous.

The government knows that groups like Hope Cottage are feeding people, so it is keeping its head down and cutting back and back to see how hard we can run. After you look at this situation long enough you say, this is not right. You start to ask, how do we address the system? We have to step forward and make presentations to government, and that’s more time consuming.

Q. How do you find the time for all this volunteer work? What about your business?

As long as I can eke out a living that pays my bills, that is really all I’m trying to do. I have five children but now they are older and have moved away so I have all this time that I used to spend on them. At 55 I’m still young enough. It’s a combination of having the available time and personal conviction.

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