Cold Comfort for the Homeless

Joyce Wayne looks into the everyday life of homeless in Canada.

Can you imagine being over the age of sixty and homeless?  Lately I’ve been trying to envision what that would look like. One thing I know for sure is that without my home I wouldn’t be me.

Home is the reason why so many of us wish to age in place and not move to rental apartments or into retirement homes. Toronto is now the most expensive city to rent in Canada, not to mention all the other reasons why most seniors want to age in place.  We want to stay close to everything familiar in our neighbourhoods, the places where friends and family live and where we say, “hello” and ask, “how are you?” to the local grocer or the hairdresser or a favourite teller at the bank. These connections still matter, perhaps more than ever as we age.

While the temperature dropped below -20 Celsius early in January, Toronto’s homeless men and women faced days and nights trying to survive on the streets. Although a motion was presented to Toronto City Council — before the holiday break—to open the Moss Park Armoury to the city’s homeless, it was defeated.

Community advocates had been calling for Moss Park to be opened for weeks before the frigid temperatures arrived. A petition garnered over 35,000 signatures. Still it wasn’t enough.

By January 4th, warming centres and homeless shelters across the city stood at ninety-five per cent capacity, with more than 6,000 people using the spaces and still the Armoury remained closed. Finally after days of biting cold, on January 5th, the City announced it would petition the Federal government to open the Moss Park Armoury and transform it into a 24-hour winter respite. Early reports said it would take the weekend to open the facility, even though the temperature dipped to -24 C that Friday night. Then came another message on Saturday morning, announcing that Moss Park Armoury would be open by seven p.m., thirty-six hours earlier than first reported.

The city of Toronto said the facility would be the seventh municipally-run respite centre. It would have 100 cots and access to meals, showers, hygiene kits and information on accessing housing supports.

By Saturday night, the city also announced that it was opening the Wellesley Community Centre as a winter respite location and would increase the number of beds at the Better Living Centre to 200 and Regent Park Community Centre to 180.

Saturday recorded a daytime high of -17 Celsius and a low of -23 overnight.

The afternoon before more winter respite shelters opened, my husband, daughter, her boyfriend and I saw a film at Cineplex’s Varsity Theatre. The movie complex is inside the Manulife Centre, a posh shopping centre and luxury apartment building at the corner of Bay and Bloor.  Holt Renfrew is across the street. Designer boutiques like Chanel and Hermes are nearby.  Inside Manulife there’s a large Indigo Books, expensive little shops and a few nooks to grab a fancy coffee or sit down to a full-course meal.

Outside, at the corner of Bay and Bloor, on the afternoon that my family enjoyed a movie, sat a woman wrapped in many blankets. She wore a hat tied tightly around her face, dark curls peeking out and decorating her smile. Piled beside her were a sleeping bag and various parcels stuffed with her belongings. She held out a Tim Horton’s cup to passersby. The sun was setting and the temperature was falling when we left the Manulife Centre. It would continue to plummet as darkness swept the city.

She recognized me. We’d met before on better, warmer days when I’ve been known to drop a few coins in her cup. That day I opened my wallet for some loose change, but as I did my eyes filled with tears. Without too much thought, I pulled a twenty- dollar bill and placed it in her cup.

My daughter and I hung around to talk with her. She was waiting for the Moss Park Armoury to open. She hadn’t heard about the Better Living Centre that the city opened for the homeless, although she was aware that it was at Exhibition Place. I tried to convince her to get down to the Better Living Centre and she assured me she would. First, she explained, she’d buy something to eat. “Real food,” she said, “not doughnuts.” Usually, she explained, people gave her Tim Horton’s gift cards assuming she’d spend their cash on drugs or alcohol.

Why did I pull twenty dollars from my wallet?  I’m certainly not patting myself on the back. It wasn’t a sacrifice. It was the least I could do. Later that night I paid twice that amount to park the car while we ate dinner.

I don’t believe I’ve ever been as grateful for my home as the winter evening I spoke with the homeless woman at the corner of Bay and Bloor.  Home is the place to fix a meal, store one’s possessions, take a hot shower, or sleep on clean sheets. Most importantly home should be the place where we are safest. It’s where we go when we’re ill or confused or frightened.  Without a home, we can’t work, can’t be close to family, and can’t protect our children or ourselves. Without home, we’re lost to ourselves and to society. There are no more marginalized persons than the homeless.

I’ve lived in many places.  As a student, it was a dormitory room, or with fellow students in a communal house.  They were messy places, but I was warm and clean and safe. There has always been, for every moment of my life, a place I call home. As I grew older, my homes became more elaborate, more expensive. I followed a common pattern for the majority of Canadians, who settle down, buy a home, and stay put for years. We become members of a community, a street, a single block on the street.

Today there is no hard and fast record of the number of people without homes, but given the numbers in the shelters during this cold spell it must be at least 6,500 to 8,000 in Toronto. These numbers include families with children, and men and women over the age of sixty. They make up a village of the dispossessed, struggling to survive, right under our noses.

It’s difficult to figure out how the province and the city have allowed this tragedy to unfold and accelerate as urban neighbourhoods gentrified, rents increased and condos increasingly marked the landscape. Most of us spend more time worrying about percentage increases or dips in the housing market than we do about people without access to any home at all.

It might be because homeless folks don’t vote. They don’t wield any power whatsoever. Or it might be because the homeless frighten us.  They are the untouchables of the developed world. They are the antithesis of the Canadian dream.  Their presence on the streets reminds us that “there for the grace of God.” Who hasn’t encountered a spate of bad luck or hasn’t stumbled onto hard times, by accident or on purpose? Even those who enjoy stable lives can try to imagine how it would feel to walk in the shoes of a homeless person.

This winter we rush past the homeless man or woman curled atop the grate for a bit of warmth, but they remain invisible in any real sense. We see them, but we don’t see them. We walk by them and we forget them. They evoke powerful responses in us, feelings of pity, or fear or even anger. We erase them because it is too painful to commit their plight to memory.

What the cold spell did for Toronto, and many other cities across the continent, was to put pictures of the homeless on air, on social media and in print.  Let’s not pretend that they don’t exist any longer.

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