An Inside Look at Toronto's Inadequate Shelter System

'There is no hope for many people, no end. It's just one place to the next, the same goddamn routine every single day.'

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Mar 8 2016, 8:42pm


All photos by the author

It's 8 PM on a Saturday near the end of February. It's cool out, but not cold. I'm standing outside Blythwood Baptist Church with a hot cup of coffee in my hand, courtesy of the Out of the Cold (OOTC) shelter program running in the basement below. To my right, half-illuminated by a dirty industrial light bolted to the building, a cloud of cigarette smoke escapes from Brian DuBourdieu's lips. He had begun telling me about the time someone dropped him off at this same church a few years ago—drunk, homeless, and nearly frozen.

"They found me in a ditch," he tells me while packing away his carton of discount cigarettes. DuBourdieu, 59, says he uses the term "they" because he never actually met the people who saved him five years ago. He only knows some vague details from his own recollection and that of what his friends have told him: One night in the winter of 2010, a vehicle found him passed out in a snowy ditch. The occupants picked him up, tossed him in the car, brought him to the church, and left before he woke up. I asked him if it was strange that people who saved his life didn't want to meet him. Unphased, he laughed at the idea.

"They were taking a huge risk taking me in with them. They didn't know me, I could have been anybody. I could have been somebody who might've attacked them for being woken up like that. It was just a very nice thing to do, and a very rare thing to do."

DuBourdieu was born in Newfoundland and grew up like many people do—erratically and full of angst. Although he made it through high school and into a solid university program, he flunked out in his second year while battling the bottle. His alcoholism would plague him for years to come as he had trouble finding a steady job in a struggling Newfoundland economy. Wanting to get away and get paid, he followed in his father's footsteps and joined the Canadian Navy. He stayed there until the 80s before joining the coast guard. Cheap booze and a hard drinking culture came with the job.

In the 90s, DuBourdieu had moved to Toronto where he framed and roofed houses. A few years in, he suffered a knee injury on the job that made it tough for him to keep up. All the while, the seduction of liquor pulled him further away from work and deeper into a depressive rut. Before long, things had fallen apart. DuBourdieu was homeless, and he'd stay like that for over a decade. Performing the daily grind of hopping from shelter to shelter, staying in hostels when he could afford it, and getting drunk to pass the time when he couldn't.

Nowadays, DuBourdieu works as a volunteer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). After finding a place in veterans' housing around four years ago, he's cleaned up his life. He spends much his time now working within outreach community and interacting with the homeless. While he knows first hand how helpful the system can be, he's also aware that—as it is now—the need for affordable housing in Toronto is at a critical mass.

"They wouldn't do this to cats and dogs," DuBourdieu tells me, waving in the direction of the dozens of beds crammed beside each other in Blythwood's basement. "We need housing. Right now, not later. This is not humane by any stretch of the imagination."

According to a recent report from OCAP, there's currently over 95,000 spots on the waitlist for affordable housing in Toronto. An astounding number by itself, the average wait time before getting into a home is similarly shocking: five years for those who are homeless or struggling with mental illness, and 10 years for those who aren't.

There are roughly 5,200 people who are homeless in Toronto, although that doesn't mean all of them are on the street. A good portion of that number have found some sort of temporary emergency housing through the city's Streets to Homes program, while others may be crashing at friend or family member's place. It's not living like most of us do, but they have a home.

Of the few hundred or so who roam the streets every night, however, most rely partly or entirely on private non-profits like OOTC—a program that is run by a rotating collective of the city's churches. With that said, charitability only goes so far: according to OCAP, around 81 percent of Toronto's homeless will be denied shelter at OOTC centres due to overcrowding, leaving most of them to spend their night in the streets.

"Justice would be the opening of more real shelters and a phasing out of the Out of the Cold program with real shelters. Real shelters would be properly staffed, accessible, with a harm-reduction approach and be culturally sensitive," Cathy Crowe, a Ryerson University professor and outreach worker, told me when asked about the state of the shelter system.

To Crowe—who's been a prolific figure in Toronto's at-risk community for two decades—homelessness in Toronto is at a crisis level. Crowe's thesis is clear: current housing is in Toronto is unaffordable, and the Toronto Community Housing program is billions behind in repairs. The catalyst, in her mind, was the end of the National Affordable Housing Program (axed in 1993 by the Chretien government), but she has hope the Trudeau government will revive it in the face of a national housing crisis.

DuBourdieu has seen the change first-hand. As we left Blythwood, he told me about the cheap hostels and homeless-friendly hotels that populated downtown before gentrification hit the city in places like Parkdale, Kensington Market, and Queen Street East. Now, as an older man, DuBourdieu says "he wouldn't dare" sleep in one of the city's hostels due to amount of money they cost when compared to the amount of the danger they pose.

"I can't defend myself like I used to he," he tells me, opening his palms to show the tough creases that have formed across them. "If I were younger, I'd take the risk of getting beat up or robbed. Why bother nowadays?"

DuBourdieu and I went down to Margaret's that night, one of the two warming centres in the city. Margaret's sits on the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne—a notoriously low-income, crime ridden section of the city and a place that's easily forgotten. Being how mild the weather was, we weren't expecting much of a crowd. DuBourdieu told me most people would be taking advantage of the break in cold by using it panhandle into the early part of the next day.

"Of course, some people just like a good place to take a nap," he told me as we opened the wooden doors to the church Margaret's is housed in. Before they closed, a woman outside, jittering from the buzz of a cigarette, laughed at our conversation.

"Just wait until it's cold," she said.

Thanks to protests last year after two men died by freezing to death, places like Margaret's—normally only open when extreme cold weather alerts are put into effect—are now open January through February. On March 1, the very day warming centres were set to close for the season, a snow storm rolled through Toronto. This time, without DuBourdieu, I marched down Dundas' frozen corridor. High winds and an unending hail of snow blanketed everything in sight. Yet when I arrived at the warming centre, it was emptier than before.

"Most people don't even know it's open," one man outside told me. "They'll probably be pissed when they find out they could have stayed here for the night."

Miscommunication in the streets is frequent, and it's one of things DuBourdieu says is the most maddening part of being homeless. The cycle of waking up every day, taking the single transit token rationed out alongside breakfast at programs like OOTC, heading to the next shelter, sleeping (most of the times in the streets), and doing it all over again becomes routine. But when that routine becomes interrupted—either by personal issues or by losing track of who will be where and what centre is open that night—the process becomes abrasive.

"It's the kind of thing that will drive you to drink, to smoke, to do other [drugs]. There is no hope for many people, no end. It's just one place to the next, the same goddamn routine every single day. You have to have a place where you can just have peace and quiet and sleep without worrying about tomorrow. A lot of these people don't have that, and it's so, so wrong."

That's what DuBourdieu told me the day after the storm. As we sat on the steps of Margaret's with our legs outstretched in the sun, two men panhandled on the corner. They asked some people passing by for some change, each of them extending a ballcap clutched in their hands. Most declined. The men said thank you anyway. Drifting between our conversation and watching the men, DuBourdieu took deep drags from his cigarette and grimaced at the sight. The sun may have rose and the snow may have melted, but this situation was bigger than a one night in the cold.

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

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