In the midst of plenty, despair

Published January 1, 1999

In summer, the trees conceal them. But now it’s a grey, chilly day at the end of November and the leaves have fallen. If you look carefully through the barren branches, you can see the tents and lean-tos of people roughing it in the bush.

But this isn’t the bush, it’s downtown Toronto. Overhead, a subway train rumbles across the lower level of the Prince Edward Viaduct that spans the Don River Valley, connecting Bloor Street and the Danforth. Perched nearby, overlooking the valley, is the exclusive enclave of Rosedale, some of the most expensive real estate in Canada which boasts stately mansions, well-kept grounds and expensive cars in the driveways. Down in the valleys and ravines is where up to 2,000 people at a time call home.

I have come here with a photographer to visit one of Toronto’s homeless. In front of us are a couple of hand-printed signs warning psychiatrists and other criminals to keep out. A footpath leads past the signs to an improvised arrangement of tarpaulins lashed intricately to the trees and saplings around it.

We call out hello, but there is no answer. At the open end of the shelter is a piece of carpet, two overturned plastic buckets with red placemats taped to them for seats, and a small table with matching red tape across the top. It overlooks a gulley with a small stream at the bottom. Boxes line one side of the dwelling and at the end is a mound of sleeping bags. We feel like we’re invading someone’s privacy but as we turn to go an older man pulls up on a bicycle.

He asks if we’re criminals or psychiatrists and when we assure him we’re not, he invites us into his home, offering us the buckets as seats. This is Gordon’s place. He has lived in Vancouver, Saskatoon, St. Catharines and Hamilton; he arrived in Toronto in August; and he has library cards from everywhere he has lived.

During our visit, Gordon, who looks to be in his late 60s, repeatedly claims that he isn’t schizophrenic because he doesn’t have voices in his head, though he displays other characteristic obsessions of the disease. He tells us that not only did his family try to kill him but they put him on a list as being crazy. He is also convinced that psychiatrists dress up in camouflage and spray gasses into his tent at night, which give him leg cramps. And he won’t eat the sandwiches that well-meaning groups like the Salvation Army bring by: there are drugs in the food, says Gordon.

“That’s against Section 245 of the Criminal Code, you know,” he keeps saying, wagging his finger in the air. “They should be put into jail for 14 years for doing that to me. It’s against the law to drug people like that.”

The photographer asks if he can take pictures of him. With a curious mixture of paranoia and laughing at himself, Gordon asks if the camera will shoot gasses at him.

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he says wryly and escorts us to the end of the footpath. He points out some signs he put up across the road for the northbound motorists to read. They all say the same thing: God bless you.

Almost daily, the media report on the latest figures on child poverty, homelessness, and a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Canada. Is life getting harder for vulnerable Canadians? Or are the figures, as the C.D. Howe Institute has claimed, being fiddled with to make things seem worse than they are?

Those who work with homeless people have the proof. They have seen increases in numbers of those needing help, but they’ve also seen how the demographic of the homeless community is shifting.

“We’ve seen a drastic change in the makeup of the homeless community in the last few years,” said Dan Robillard, director of Toronto’s All Saints Community Centre. The work of All Saints’ is supported by the community ministries board of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

“Before, we used to get mostly the stereotypical older man with alcohol problems. Now our clients are much younger, teenagers and families with children; they often have no obvious disability but because of economic circumstances, they come to us.”

Mr. Robillard said that quite often they have had homes, families and responsibilities, but because of losing a job or some other reason, find themselves on the street. “They’re feeling disappointed,” he said. “And with prolonged homelessness, they also have a loss of pride. We try to give them validation and recognition, that they have gifts and abilities and something to offer the community.”

The interim report for the Toronto homelessness task force points to another significant group; aboriginal people make up 25 per cent of Toronto’s street population, although they represent less than three per cent of the overall population. A background paper for the task force noted that “Aboriginal people (can) arrive in the city without many social connections or skills of urban life.”

Both Mr. Robillard and Dan Anstett, a supervisor at Family Residence in Scarborough, point to what they feel are the reasons for the increases in homelessness they have seen: Ottawa’s abandonment of social housing in the early 1990s; the cut in provincial transfer payments in 1995; the vacancy rate in Toronto that hovers below two per cent; and the removal of rent controls in Ontario.

“And with the sudden 21.6 per cent cuts in social assistance rates in 1995 we’ve seen a large increase in families coming here for help because of evictions,” Mr. Anstett said. “They could manage to keep it going for so long, and then they find they just can’t make ends meet any more.”

Family Residence, run by the city, has 10 residences: several specific-use buildings, and a few shabby motels on Kingston Road at the east end of the city that they rent space from. They also rent space in nearby Burlington, St. Catharines and Hamilton.

“We find them accommodation wherever we can,” Mr. Anstett said. “If they are a refugee or don’t have any direct connection with Toronto, such as family or a job, then we can locate them in these other places where the rents are cheaper.”

Mr. Anstett is alarmed at the increase at his shelter of families with large numbers of children who simply can’t find a place big enough that they can afford, and at the numbers of single mothers. He said that not only have the numbers increased, from 840 several years ago to 1,400 last year, but the average stays are now 90 days, up from 60.

Supporting vulnerable people before they’re homeless is less costly and better for everyone, he said. “I wish we could afford an outreach worker who could work with people in the community, to find out who is on the edge and help them pay their rent before they’re evicted. It costs a lot less to society in the long run.

“In this city, we can afford to bail out the SkyDome (the financially troubled stadium) but we can’t seem to find the money for infrastructure, such as affordable housing,” he said. “There are about 35,000 people waiting for subsidized housing in Toronto, which is a 10-year wait.”

But David Smith, executive director of Evangel Hall, a Presbyterian-run street mission, sees a good side to government pulling out of programs.

“One positive outcome in the change in government policy is that it gets us to think about things in a different light, not depending on government to do everything,” he said. “Maybe we need to change, to get the ones we’re helping to serve the soup instead of humbly leaning over the grateful poor like in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”

He says there are no easy answers, and admits that the last few years have been ones of “terrible constraint,” but thinks people who volunteer in missions such as his will at least become educated about the poor when they actually meet them, which they might not otherwise do.

“I spend so much time on administrative duties, filling out lengthy applications and monthly reports. I think it is better to talk to the person in the pews, to get them excited about your work, and get them to give us $100 per year or whatever rather than rely on government.”

But Mr. Robillard said letting government off the hook is not the answer.

“Those days are gone, where the government completely funds and runs programs,” he said. “But I don’t agree that the government shouldn’t be involved. What we need now are new partnerships with government and other sectors, business, churches, whatever. The government is us, it represents our community at large. They have an obligation to the poor. It is a matter of principle that the state has responsibilities to its citizens.”

Nelson Riis, NDP finance critic, agreed, saying Canada is not doing enough in the way of social housing.

“In a country like Canada, with all the resources we have like timber and other raw materials, and all the available land, I can’t understand why the government doesn’t get involved in social housing,” he said. “It would put manufacturers and tradespeople to work. And then the houses need to be furnished with tables and chairs and appliances. It would be good for the economy and help people at the same time.”

While most homelessness seems centred in the cities, Mr. Riis recounted a time last winter when he was going to work at his Kamloops constituency office in central British Columbia and saw one of his staff placing a paper plate full of food on the edge of a dumpster in a parking lot nearby.

?I asked her what she was doing. She said it was for the guy in the dumpster?

Homelessness statistics

from prelininary research by Dr. Anne Golden, chair of the Mayor of Toronto’s task force on homelessness

  How many homeless? Who are they? Where do they come from?
Vancouver 20,000 at risk; 500 on street at night; 289 a night in shelters many are youths with drug problems 33 – 50 per cent from outside Vancouver
Calgary 3,800 homeless at some point during the year; 10,000 at risk; 1,000 per night in shelters numbers of employed people and women with children climbing 73 per cent from outside Calgary
Toronto 26,000 homeless during the year; 80,000 at risk; 3,000 – 4,000 per night in shelters youth and families with children are fastest climbing 47 per cent outside Toronto; 14 per cent from outside Canada
Montreal 8,000 per night in shelters 4,000 – 5,000 street youth many from suburbs or small towns in Quebec


  Provincial policies Rental housing vacancy rate
Vancouver still funding about 600 new units of social housing per year; welfare reduced for singles but not families 1.7 per cent
Calgary withdrawal from social housing construction 0.5 per cent
Toronto social assistance cutbacks; cancellation of all social housing projects in 1995; downloading of provincial programs almost zero; rents rising
Montreal cutbacks to hospitals; province still funding some housing 5.9 per cent


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