By Chris Domingo
It’s 7 in the evening, you’ve just gotten off work, and you want something to eat before you get home. Pizza sounds good right about now, sure. So you head to Pizza Pizza, order yourself a slice, and sit down. You’re tired, you’re grumpy, and your manager’s been breathing down your neck all day and the last thing you need at the moment is human interaction. All you’re focused on is closing the gap between you and that slice of pizza as quickly as possible.
You sit down and then you hear it, distant at first, then growing closer and closer, louder and louder. It’s him. Again. You hear the change jangling around in his pocket, you hear him sniffling with every step, and as he nears, the smell of stale cigarette smoke wafts into your nostrils.
“Hey man, can I just get a dollar or something for the bus? You got any change on you? Can I just a dollar or a quarter, any change you got man...”
Chances are, you’ve been in this scenario at least once in your life, and I would guess that what you did was draw your eyes away from his, look down at the floor, and shuffle around in your pockets, hoping you don’t accidently grab a toonie or something. Then, as he moved on to the next table, you wondered why he wouldn't just get a job, or what he was gonna spend that change on, drinks or drugs? And as the manager comes out from behind the counter and shoos him out the door, you wonder where he goes from there, where he lays his head down at night. Then you’ll write him off as a crackhead or a crazy person, and go back to that warm slice of pizza.
According to a national report done in 2013 by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, at least 200 000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year. 30 000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, and at least 50 000 Canadians are “hidden homeless” – that is, people who stay with friends or family temporarily as they have nowhere else to go.
Boil those numbers down to Toronto, and you’ve got an estimated 5 219 homeless people in the city, 3 970 of whom are staying in city-administered shelters, and 447 men and women who are living on the streets, according to a 2013 study.
How does a person fall so far? Andrew, who works at a homeless shelter in Toronto, shares his opinion:
D: It’s definitely a systemic issue, there are a number of issues: access to housing, the availability of housing stock is one issue, and the affordability of housing stock is also combined with that. Another systemic angle would be the failure of the mental health services in Toronto to adequately provide for people who have mental health issues, or.. just the health care services in general. There is a significant number of homeless people in Toronto who have acquired brain injuries (ABIs) and are homeless now because of a change in how they are due to that injury. There are a lot of people with ABIs in the system with help from services who can help with those injuries. So, housing stock, housing affordability, and the mental health care system. There are a number of people I know within the shelter system who are too sick to stay home but not sick enough to stay in hospital, and end up in specialized centres of the shelter system.
You can definitely point to housing prices as one of the roots of homelessness. In October 2016, Global News published an article on their website discussing Toronto’s soaring real estate prices. They reported that the GTA saw the aggregate price of a home rise 13.6% in 2016, to $693 154 year-over-year. The average price of a two storey home in the GTA was reported as $812 990, and a bungalow would set you back around $688 813. For reference, at the time of his death, Gary Coleman, star of 80’s TV show Diff’rent Strokes, had a net worth of $100 000, meaning that a bungalow in the GTA would cost you almost 7 Gary Colemans!
Mental health awareness is also an issue that needs attention. Yes, society and government have made great steps towards making people more aware and more knowledgeable on mental health. For instance, this year the government is spending $438 million on treating mental health in youth, which is great. And since the 1900s, we’ve by-and-large stopped blaming mental health on the wrath of Satan and stopped lobotomizing people for having anxiety and depression disorders. Which is nice.
However, lobotomies and demonic possessions aside, there are still problems to be found within the system with regards to mental health care. If we’re just focusing on mental health care in kids and teenagers, auditor Bonnie Lysyk found in her annual report that this year, mental health agencies reported a 50% spike in hospitalization cases since 2009, and that the government hasn’t taken any steps to address it. She also noted that a lot of the details of the report were similar to those identified in audits from 2003, meaning that the government has been spending the same money on the same programs and branches for over a decade now. That would be like Apple putting all their funding into developing Walkmans and cassette players. Children’s Mental Health Ontario, an organization set up to address issues around mental health in youth, released a report that found that more than 9000 young people across the province were waiting anywhere from three months to a year and a half for mental health care. Not to mention, in 2015 and 2016, the government of Ontario spent nearly $10 million to send 127 people to the United States for treatment. Yes Canada, sending our youth in need to a country that just elected Donald Trump into office.
But’s not like the government has just been sitting on their hands regarding the issue. When they aren’t busy making Justin Trudeau look adorable, they’re setting up programs like the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. CHPI was launched in January 2013, and essentially consolidates individual housing and homelessness programs into one flexible program, with government funding. This year the government of Ontario announced they would be investing $293.7 million in funding for the CHPI. In Brampton, the CHPI’s funding allowed the city to transform the 7 & 7 Motel into a youth shelter, allocating $1.8 million to the cause. But are shelters the best solution for the issue of homelessness? Andrew doesn’t think so.
D: It’s a confusing, not particularly great place to be in, the shelter system, it’s designed to meet the needs of people who absolutely have nothing left. SO if you haven’t reached that point yet, you don’t really want to be in the shelter system. So there are a lot of people who come through the shelter system, stay one or two nights, and get back on their feet, quicky.
He’s got a point too. As much as the government tries to fund programs and shelters for homeless people, the problem is still much too vast, much too complex for the government to contend with. The CHPI is great, yes, and the work they’ve done, the money they’ve put into programs has no doubt helped a lot of people… In the GTA. A news report from the St. Catherines Standard in October 2016 talks about how the CHPI isn’t giving them enough funding, only allocating an additional $620 000 (about 6 Gary Colemans) in provincial funding for the next two years. Obviously that isn’t going to do much to help the problem over there. But then again, this episode isn’t about St. Catherines, so let’s go back to the GTA. Where else can a person go if they’ve been left on the street due to housing or mental health issues, and a shelter won’t cut it? Well, St. Leonard's Place is an organization in Brampton that is trying to answer that question. Here's Ross Harding, Communications Director at St. Leonard's, explaining the organization.
R: Well, we are a transitional housing facility here in Brampton, so we have about 110 guys who live here, about half of them are federal parolees, guys who committed an offence and were sentenced o a federal institution, and are now transitioning back into society. The other half are guys with a history of homelessness, that's one criteria, the other is mental illness and/or addiction, that population is the other half. Been around since 1971, and originally just a halfway house for the parolees, but we've expanded since then. What's unique about St. Leonard's is that we do have the two populations here. We're actually one of the bigger halfway houses, I think there's only one in Ontario bigger.
So when we were talking before, you talked about how St. Leonard's isn't a shelter, its a step above that, kind of the "second step" in the process.
R: A shelter is a place where you're going to come off the street and get some sort of housing for the night. This is not that sort of place because you can't just come here and expect housing. There's an application process: For the federal parolees its done through the Correctional Service of Canada, but for the other part of the population, they have to apply. So typically, guys who come here are coming from shelters or hospitals. One thing that separates us from a shelter is that we have a program thats a mandatory part of residence here, so you can't just come here and expect to just have free housing. There is the expectation that you're going to be developing skills and developing independence to get to a point where you can either attain or regain independent living. So between us and a shelter, there's more structure. A shelter would be entry level, and we're a step up after that.
St. Leonard’s is one of several transitional housing programs, as Ross said, originally starting as a place where recent parolees could reintegrate into society, now expanded to help those dealing with addiction, mental health, and homelessness reintegrate as well. And what makes them different from other organizations?
R: We have 24 hour support, staff are always here. We have a full service kitchen, in fact as we speak, the guys are now proceeding to the serving area where our 3 full time kitchen staff are serving the meals they've prepared. And we've got programming during the day to keep them busy. Not a lot of this stuff would be available at your stereotypical shelter. A stereotypical shelter is where you'd go in the evening, hoping to get a good space, and in the morning you kick everybody out. We offer stability, guys feel like this is their home. Which isn't something we're necessarily proud of. By our mandate, we are supposed to be transitional housing, helping guys in dire situations transition to independent living. Our mission is to get them there, and when we have guys who've been here for 10 years, that's not a glowing endorsement. But the fact is, there isn’t enough supportive housing stock. Most housing stock is going into y’know, condos and such.
And there it is again, housing stock. A problem that both Drew and Ross see within the system that might be making a good effort at helping people who are already homeless, but aren’t doing enough to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Now I’m sure you feel terribly guilty, hearing these facts, thinking about that person panhandling out the pizza place. But it’s not like you’re the only person who thinks that way about homeless people. In a scholarly article called “Homelessness in the Suburbs”, Isolde Daiski says that “the ultimate existential violence is denial of personhood, being called a nobody.” She goes on to relay the story of a homeless person she had interviewed, Art, and an experience he had when a young child looking at him asked his mother, “who is that man?” Her response? “Nobody dear, he’s homeless.”
Aside from the systemic factors that contribute to homelessness, the stigma around homeless people is one of the more harmful factors that keeps them in that position.
R: The most harmful lesson is the lesson that they don’t deserve better conditions, and getting guys to be advocates for themselves in terms of demanding services and demanding improvements in their station. When you're used to living on the street, you’re not going to have high expectations for when your rights aren't being met in terms of shelter. You're more likely to put up with a slum lord, and you're less likely to speak up about these issues when you've internalized the notion that, y'know, you're not worth it.
In this technologically advanced, civilized world we live in, in the year 2016, why are we at a point where we need to teach people to see themselves as human beings? Even if Ross and St. Leonard’s do their job correctly, and get these people to a mental point where they can live on their own, they’ve still got society to deal with, they’ve still got that label hanging over them. “I was homeless. I am a recovering addict. I have mental health issues that need to be addressed and helped.” And these labels are hard to shake, and even harder to cope with.
A: It's not just a case of "get your act together", if you're 16 years old and your parents kick you out because you don't fit that mould that they expect you to fit, how do we fix that? If you're a 45 year old guy and you've been on the streets since you were 16, you grew up in a reservation, didn't have a great time in that reservation, moved to Toronto and spent most of your time on the streets? At age 45 it's not just a case of "get a job", you've spent most of your life on the streets! How do we fix that? And it is a "how do we fix that", not how does that person fix that, because that person is trying to fix that every day by trying just to survive. So how do we, how do we as people who work in the field, how do we as people who are concerned about this, advocate to various levels of government, and to agencies to do the work that they should be doing and sometimes aren't doing. We need to advocate more.
What Andrew is saying there is what Ross and St. Leonard’s are trying to do with their work, the message I’m trying to convey to you now. That those dark figures out on the street, they aren’t the failures of society, they aren’t just ghosts wandering around. They’re people, they’re people who’ve fallen, and are trying to work their way back up. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his play “No Exit”, that Hell is other people, and that we are defined by how others see us. If we treat those people on the streets like ghosts, see them as nobodies, then they’ll see themselves as ghosts, treat themselves as nobodies. I’m not asking you to empty out your wallet the next time a homeless guy interrupts your evening dinner, I’m just asking you to look him in the eye, and consider the possibility that he isn’t just a nobody, that there’s a human being underneath that cigarette smoke jangling those chains, who needs help.
Daiski, Isolde et al. "Homelessness in the Suburbs: Engulfment in the Grotto" Studies in Social Justice Volume 6, Chapter 1. 2012.