The Rosedale Valley is a ribbon of calm winding through the bustling centre of Toronto, a natural buffer of Manitoba maples and Japanese knotweed separating the mansions of south Rosedale from the crowded towers of St. James Town. It’s also one of the few places downtown where someone can set up camp, just minutes from churches that serve hot meals, without fear of being moved along by city workers or police.
On a grey and rainy afternoon late last fall, Greg Cook headed toward the ravine on one of his regular walks. He’s a 39-year-old outreach worker at Sanctuary, a Christian charity run out of an old church near Yonge and Bloor that hosts daytime drop-ins and community meals for the homeless. Cook has long, shaggy hair, a quiet demeanour and a deep faith. He has worked with Toronto’s homeless for more than a decade, handing out sleeping bags and socks and trying to find people space in shelters. Sometimes he just goes out to talk, showing a friendly face to people who are often ignored.
Walking east along Charles Street, he passed buildings that were once inexpensive rentals and rooming houses and are now condominiums. Past Jarvis, he ducked beneath the four lanes of Mount Pleasant, scrambled down a leafy embankment and was immediately in another world. The valley felt secluded, the only noise the distant whoosh of commuters driving past and the patter of rain on leaves. There were encampments beneath every overpass—mattresses and garbage bags of possessions next to small fire pits, a wheelchair sitting stranded in the mud. At the Glen Road pedestrian bridge, beside a collection of ragged tents, someone had laid down tar paper in a futile attempt to hold back the mud. Red bike lights blinked out of a tent. A young man, naked, pulled on a pair of jeans and clambered out. “You relax,” Cook told him as the subway boomed overhead. “I’m just walking through.”
People have always camped in the ravines, but there are more doing so now than ever before. One night last April, city staff roamed Toronto’s ravines, parks and underpasses and counted 533 Torontonians sleeping outside. Several years ago, the city created the position of “parks ambassador,” a kind of security guard–meets–social worker who patrols encampments and directs the homeless to housing programs. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of encampments removed by the city doubled, and last year, another full-time ambassador and four seasonal employees were hired to manage the growing population. In the summer, workers cleared out the area under the Gardiner every few weeks, removing the couches, tents and chairs that made up the increasingly elaborate camps. Each time, after a few days, the occupants returned and started over.
Against a newly painted bridge support beneath Mount Pleasant, Cook could still see the charred smudges that marked the spot where 50-year-old Darren McKim was pulled from his burning tent in April. He died four days later at Sunnybrook Hospital. McKim had been known to outreach workers as one of the city’s chronically homeless, the technical term for people who spend more than six consecutive months without housing.
McKim’s name was added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial, an unofficial tally of people who have died as a result of homelessness, compiled by volunteers and posted at the Church of the Holy Trinity, where sombre crowds gather on the second Tuesday of each month to read aloud the names of the most recently deceased. According to officials at Toronto Public Health, who began keeping their own list in 2017, at least a hundred homeless people died that year. That’s almost two a week. Their median age is 48. After watching so many clients die over the past few years, Cook says his job has changed. His focus has become just trying to keep people alive.
Cook climbed up the muddy bank, out of the darkening valley toward the lights of Bloor. For a segment of the population, it has always been tough to make a living and pay rent in Toronto, but the vast majority were able to make it work. Now, however, Cook is seeing people who once sailed through the system getting tripped up. The people in the ravine, sleeping just a few hundred metres away from one of the richest neighbourhoods in the country, are the most visible examples of a broken housing system. As wealth fills every crevice of the downtown core, the people Cook serves aren’t just excluded from prosperity—they’re punished by it, left to watch as the city’s affordable housing options are knocked down to clear the runway for Toronto’s rapid, unstoppable ascent.
A homelessness crisis is not like a forest fire or a tornado—a disaster with a clear starting point and a logical solution. It’s closer to climate change, a gradual accretion of conditions that becomes a catastrophe before anyone is willing to acknowledge it.
Toronto is experiencing the effects of multiple trends coming to a head. Years of underinvestment in social housing from all levels of government have left the city with a 98,000-person waiting list. Soaring rental prices have far outstripped increases in wages or government support, putting enormous pressure on anyone trying to find an affordable place to live. And in the last two years, an already-overcrowded shelter system has been forced to absorb a surge of refugee claimants and people affected by the opioid epidemic.
Those factors have combined to create a crisis. From 2016 to late 2018, the average number of people using the city’s emergency shelters on any given night leapt 60 per cent to more than 6,600. Those numbers don’t capture the city’s hidden homeless, the term used for those without their own housing who are staying on a friend’s couch or in a family member’s basement, constantly in danger of ending up on the street. More than a third of people in one-bedroom apartments in the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton are living in what Statistics Canada calls “unsuitable housing,” places without enough bedrooms for the number of occupants.
Toronto has 64 shelters, 10 managed by the city itself and 54 operated in partnership with community agencies like the Salvation Army. Across such a vast ecosystem, conditions vary wildly. The best are clean, small and run by caring professionals. The worst are hellish, bedbug-infested warehouses. Seaton House—the 581-bed men’s shelter nicknamed “Satan House” by those who do everything to avoid staying there—is violent and unhealthy, the site of frequent fist fights and a flu outbreak last year that hospitalized 11 and killed one. The aging, inadequate shelter has been slated for demolition since 2013, a process that has been repeatedly delayed as the city tries to figure out where to put the hundreds of men who sleep there each night.
When shelters like Seaton are full, the city rents rooms, at considerable expense, as part of its hotel program. Each winter, out-of-the-cold programs staffed by volunteers from faith-based communities offer hot meals and places to stay in a rotating series of church basements and synagogues. And in recent years, the city has begun to offer a growing catalogue of not-quite-shelters with confusing, sometimes interchangeable names: “warming centres” are little more than rooms with chairs and a few snacks and are typically open during the coldest weather; “24-hour respite sites” are facilities where anyone can find a cot or a mat on the floor; and two 24-hour “drop-ins” are open to women only.
Unlike shelters, which have rules such as curfews, the new facilities are designed to be as open and unstructured as possible. They’re supposed to appeal to vulnerable people who can’t or won’t go to shelters, whether because they have pets, they’ve been banned, or they simply don’t feel safe or comfortable in an institutional environment. The pseudo-shelters were meant to be last resorts for someone to come in, warm up and head on their way. But what began as a temporary overflow solution has since become the only housing option in the city for many Torontonians—an expedient way to warehouse people without the programs, standards or even beds that proper shelters provide.
At Sistering, a 24-hour women’s drop-in near Bloor and Dovercourt, capacity is 50, but on many nights up to 70 women compete for space. Staff hold a lottery twice a day to see who will get to sleep in one of the centre’s 12 reclining chairs. The rest of the women get thin gym mats and sleep under tables in the dining room, slouched on couches or bundled in blankets on the deck outside.
Police bring women escaping abuse to Sistering when the other women’s shelters are full. Hospitals discharge patients there when there’s no other place to send them. One woman came to Sistering after being evicted from her home in Oshawa. She spent her 78th birthday sleeping on three hard-backed chairs pushed together. She was still there recently, for her 80th. Officials at the city regularly tell Patricia O’Connell, the centre’s executive director, that she’s over capacity and can’t take in any more women. “I say, ‘You tell me where I can send them, and I’ll do that,’ ” says O’Connell.
There is nowhere else. “We’ve been at or near capacity since 2013,” says Bradley Harris, the man in charge of six Salvation Army shelters across the city. “Whether it’s summer, spring, fall or winter, we are pretty much at capacity.”
The man in charge of the city’s shelter system is Paul Raftis, a former paramedic who worked his way up to chief. With his carefully parted hair, navy blue suits and passion for “reviewing key performance metrics,” as he puts it, he’s the embodiment of the fastidious city bureaucrat. He’s an operations guy, someone brought in to modernize a shelter system that had grown increasingly ramshackle and complex.
In 2017, during one of the coldest winters on record, Raftis watched the daily numbers come in from his office at city hall with mounting concern. “People just kept coming,” he says. “We’d never seen anything like that.” The city’s response was chaotic. Confused officials using an outdated tracking system repeatedly gave incorrect information about capacity, sending homeless people away from centres with open beds. In hastily opened respites, people slept on mats just inches apart from one another, in rooms where you could see your breath. In March, the Toronto ombudsman released a scathing report criticizing the response.
That chaos, city officials insist, was the result of a historically frigid winter as well as a surge in demand. In October, Raftis said he was equipped to open 600 to 700 respite spots across 10 locations and was confident he could meet the demand. “Is it possible we receive higher numbers?” he said. “It’s possible. But it would be unprecedented.” And yet we are living in unprecedented times. On November 21, 2018, Toronto experienced its first extreme cold weather alert of the season, and the city’s respites and drop-ins were already over capacity.
A year and a half ago, Arya, a 31-year-old hospital administrator from Scarborough, was living in her own apartment. She’s a college graduate with long, dark hair and a soft, deliberate way of speaking, picking her words carefully before releasing them into the world. She had always suffered from depression, but suddenly, for reasons she couldn’t name, it became unbearable. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t even come out of my room,” she says. “I was so low and so down.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone, especially not her family. She stopped working. Then she stopped paying rent. Eventually, her landlord asked her to leave.
With nowhere to turn, Arya called around to shelters and found Elisa House, a squat red-brick building that sleeps 40 women, in a corner of Mimico surrounded by cabinetry and construction companies. She shared a room with three women, each with her own troubles. One of them stayed up all night on her phone. Another talked in her sleep, muttering awful things in the dark. Arya was determined to improve her mental health, to work with a therapist and get her old life back. But that first week in the shelter, she barely slept, which only exacerbated her depression and anxiety. The longer she was there, the further away she felt from any kind of normalcy.
Frontline workers say that Arya’s situation is common: shelters are meant to be temporary stops to help people get back on their feet, but more and more people are getting stuck there. The Streets Needs Assessment, a survey of Toronto’s homeless conducted by the city and released in late November, found that almost half of respondents had been without housing for more than six months, and 36 per cent had been homeless for more than a year.
That trend has a lot to do with rising rents. Finding an apartment in Toronto is a herculean task even for people with good, steady jobs; for someone who’s unemployed, it’s nearly impossible. The average monthly rent for a studio apartment in Toronto is $1,640, according to the research firm Urbanation. To keep housing costs at or below 30 per cent of income—the threshold for affordability—a tenant has to earn $65,600 a year. Put another way, a minimum-wage earner would need to work approximately 90 hours a week to cover rent. For a single person collecting $733 a month on welfare, affordable, livable apartments simply don’t exist. With vacancies at 1.1 per cent, landlords have their pick of tenants, and someone coming out of homelessness rarely makes the top of the list.
Arya isn’t her real name. She worries that prospective employers won’t hire her if they know she’s homeless. Today, she’s on long-term disability, and most of the other women at Elisa House are likewise on some form of government assistance. This past Christmas, she had been at the shelter for 15 months. She’d like to support herself and live outside the system but can’t find suitable housing. She recently toured a basement apartment in the west end, but the rent was $1,600 a month, and the lease required first and last month’s rent as a deposit. She knew she didn’t stand a chance. Even if she could have borrowed the money, she doubts she would have been chosen. “Landlords don’t want a tenant who is on welfare or disability,” she says. Eventually, she found an apartment on Sherbourne that she could afford, but it was filthy and decrepit. The landlord, she said, knew he could get away with it. His tenants were desperate to get out of the shelter system and weren’t likely to complain about barely livable conditions.
Recently, Arya broke down during a visit to her family doctor. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked him in tears. He had no answers for her. She put the same question to a housing advisor at a shelter called Women’s Habitat. “She told me there are no apartments available to me because of how low my income is. She just apologized and said, ‘I don’t have any good news for you.’ ”
In the fall of 2016, in the midst of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats of a travel ban, a stream of people in the U.S. began crossing the border into Canada seeking asylum. Toronto operates seven shelters dedicated to refugees, and those were quickly overrun. Typically, when that happens, the city rents hotel and motel rooms to accommodate the overflow, expanding and contracting as necessary. But the refugee claimants kept coming, and by late 2018, the hotel program had swollen sevenf0ld—from 370 spots to 2,668.
The influx strained the city’s resources—the cost of housing refugees will exceed $64.5 million for 2017–18 alone. Mayor Tory pressed the federal and provincial governments for help. “The city can’t do this alone,” he said in the fall. The Trudeau government has so far pledged $11 million in assistance, but that’s not enough. In 2016, refugee claimants made up just 11 per cent of the total number of people in the Toronto shelter system. In 2018, they constituted nearly 40 per cent.
Louis, a refugee claimant from Nigeria, was one of the many people who made their way across the border and into Toronto’s shelter system. The slim 38-year-old father of three didn’t want to reveal his last name for fear of violence against his family back home in Abuja, where he was a university graduate who worked in advertising. He fled his country for the United States in the summer of 2018. Once there, however, he quickly realized he’d made a mistake. Every day the news was full of accounts of the American government’s treatment of migrants. “We read stories of children being separated from their families and held against their will,” he says. His wife was nine months pregnant with their third child, but Louis was terrified of bringing her to the hospital for fear they’d be picked up by immigration. “I realized it wasn’t going to work,” he says. They decided to make the journey to Canada.
The family took a 40-hour bus trip from Tennessee to upstate New York. During one of their five transfers, they lost their luggage and possessions, including Louis’s laptop and the baby’s clothes. The family walked across the border at Lacolle, Quebec, on June 20 of last year, carrying just their nine-year-old son’s knapsack full of toys. They were processed by the RCMP and brought to a shelter in Montreal. A few days later, the family got on a Megabus to Toronto, where Louis, a fluent English speaker, thought he could find work. Four days after arriving, on July 9, his wife gave birth to their third child. A few days after that, Louis and his family ended up at the Radisson Toronto East, near Highway 401 in North York, one of four hotels and motels the city had contracted to shelter the sudden influx of refugees. The Radisson became the focus of a series of anti-immigrant Toronto Sun columns and white nationalist hatred online. On the evening of October 2, a woman left a flaming gas canister on the third floor, filling the corridor with smoke and sending terrified residents out into the night.
On a chilly morning last November, a month after the arson attempt, the nine-storey suburban hotel looked like any other, with polished terrazzo and fake flowers in vases in the lobby. Upstairs, hotel rooms had been transformed into makeshift offices, where housing workers and counsellors sat with clients. The halls were tidy, all indirect lighting and patterned wall-to-wall carpeting. Families moved through the building—mothers with toddlers passing through the lobby and groups of teenage girls with tight braids, laughing as they took turns sliding along the newly formed ice out front.
Refugees are not the cause of Toronto’s shelter crisis, but they’ve added stress to an already overburdened, underfunded system. And once refugees are in the system, they face the same housing problems as everyone else: there’s simply nowhere for them to go. Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI, the settlement organization embedded at the Radisson, worked with government-sponsored Syrian refugees in 2015. Back then, it took housing workers an average of five-and-a-half weeks to move families from temporary shelter into permanent housing. Three years later, he says, it takes four months, and the search stretches to all corners of the GTA.
Ask people the reason they’re homeless, and most trace their situation back to the moment their back went out, the day they were evicted, the depression that set in after a loved one died. People talk about domestic abuse, struggles with mental health and addiction. For any individual, homelessness feels like the result of personal tragedy or personal failure, bad decisions or just bad luck. But misfortune and depression aren’t new. Mass homelessness is. It’s not a fact of nature or the logical consequence of a growing population, but a distinctly modern phenomenon—the result of economic changes and political decisions made within our lifetimes.
Even the word “homeless” is relatively new. In a 1960 report, Metro Toronto used the term not to describe people who lacked housing, but to refer to men who lacked a proper “home,” with all the spiritual and familial connotations that word conjures. The report wasn’t about getting these men off the street; it was about improving their living situations, helping them get out of flop houses and rooming houses. It was only in the 1980s that the word assumed its modern meaning. It’s now a catch-all term with a dozen complex factors—evictions and unemployment, mental health and drugs, women escaping domestic abuse and refugees escaping war—and one commonality: a lack of housing. And it’s only in the 1990s that the lack of housing evolved into the monumental crisis we see today.
The crisis was entirely preventable. Between 1965 and 1995, an average of 3,900 units of social housing were built each year in what’s now the GTA. One of every eight new houses or apartments was subsidized. In 1993, the federal government cut funding for the provincial and municipal NGOs that built this housing. The Chrétien Liberals delegated responsibility for overseeing and maintaining existing social housing to the provinces, and Mike Harris’s Conservatives passed those responsibilities on to the municipalities. In 1997, for the first time in nearly 50 years, no social housing was built in Ontario.
In the years since, new social housing programs have emerged, but only at a fraction of the scale of what once existed. Today, on average, 500 units of social housing are built in the city each year. It’s a dismal record by any standard. “In Canada, we don’t usually look to the U.S. as a model for social policy,” says Greg Suttor, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Institute and the author of a history of social housing in Canada. “But in regard to new affordable rentals, they do much better than Ontario does. On average, across the entire U.S., Americans build per capita three times as many new affordable rentals every year as Ontario builds.”
There are three ways to address homelessness, says Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University and the president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. You can try to prevent it, help people move out of it or provide a temporary emergency response. Toronto has overwhelmingly focused on the latter option, says Gaetz, much to its detriment.
Two years ago, David Gordon, a lanky 44-year-old man who grew up in social housing in Toronto, was living with a friend in a downtown apartment. When that friend suddenly died, Gordon lost his home. Gordon suffers from PTSD and uses drugs, though he’d been managing to keep both under control. But after a week and a half at the Maxwell Meighen men’s shelter on Sherbourne—living with the smell and the violence, waking up at 4:30 in the morning to use one of the shelter’s two washing machines so he could visit his mother without infesting her house with bedbugs—he was having anxiety attacks again and developed a wracking cough that left him unable to speak for minutes at a time.
Putting someone like Gordon into a shelter isn’t just harmful—it’s expensive. People without homes end up in the hospital, in detox, in psychiatric care and in jail. Research from the At Home/Chez Soi project, a massive nationwide research study funded by the federal government, found that the average cost of supporting a homeless person with mental illness for a year in Toronto using traditional shelters was approximately $59,000. The cost of providing affordable housing to a person with similarly high needs, by contrast, was just $21,089 a year. The situation we’re in now isn’t just a moral failing, but a financial one, too.
The people who work with the homeless know all of this. Homelessness is both a desperately complicated, intractable problem and one that just about everyone, regardless of political affiliation, believes has a straightforward solution: more money for more affordable housing.
As the housing issue has expanded to affect not just those struggling at the lowest levels, but young professionals and potential voters, too, affordable housing has become a more pressing political issue. In 2017, the federal government announced a 10-year, $40-billion national housing strategy, and affordable housing was a central issue in last year’s municipal election. Treating the issue seriously is a necessary first step. But budgeting and arguing for theoretical homes five years from now while people are freezing on the streets tonight is like trying to stabilize a house’s foundation while the roof is on fire.
After decades of neglect, Toronto is now at the point where a few investments around the edges won’t prevent more people from falling into homelessness, let alone put a dent in the affordable housing waiting list. The unappealing truth is that keeping people out of the respites and ravines will require massive investments from all levels of government. It will also take a change of attitude from comfortable Torontonians, such as those who come to community consultations to passionately express support for social housing—as long as it’s not in their neighbourhood. An Ipsos poll from September commissioned by the Toronto Real Estate Board and the Building Industry and Land Development Association showed that 87 per cent of Toronto-area residents support increasing the affordable housing supply, but the majority oppose these same developments near where they live. In the absence of a wholesale change in attitude, today’s unprecedented homelessness crisis will simply become tomorrow’s status quo.
On a frigid Tuesday in November, as the season’s first snowflakes drifted through the air, construction workers in a parking lot in Liberty Village were smoothing the foundation of a new structure while a cement mixer whirred. The half-completed building looked like an enormous beached whale, with steel ribs protruding through blubbery slabs of insulation. Along the street, in front of the Kobo and SiriusXM Canada offices, stylish young men and women walked by on their lunch breaks, barely glancing over at the enormous dome taking shape.
The tent is one of three temporary structures being added to neighbourhoods across the downtown core—Liberty Village, the foot of Parliament, and Fleet Street near Strachan—that will act as respite centres this year. Built by the Calgary-based company Sprung Instant Structures, each costs $2.5 million and accommodates a hundred people. In its online marketing, Sprung calls its structures the “ideal solution for homeless shelters thanks to low construction costs, limited foundation requirements and the ability to deliver and build quicker than any conventional homeless building type.” A video invites you to “see firsthand how the City of San Diego rapidly transitioned a parking lot into a 200-bed veterans facility in just eight weeks!”
At a press conference, Paul Raftis introduced the new respite centres with enthusiasm. “They provide year-round client comfort,” he told the media. The structures, he promised, will be clean and warm, and unlike the worst of the respite centres that opened last winter, they’ll have adequate bathroom facilities. In many ways, the domes are a creative response to an overwhelming need, a quick way to provide emergency shelter to the growing number of people who desperately need it.
They also mark a depressing new era in the city’s approach to homelessness. A windowless tent in a downtown parking lot is a band-aid on a band-aid on a band-aid. The enormous structures are the kind of thing typically used after a natural disaster—something sudden one survives—rather than something that can be prevented.
Four days later, across town, Greg Cook and a crowd of 50 or so gathered at the Church of the Holy Trinity for the monthly homeless memorial service. Huddled against the wind, candles in hand, the mourners stood before Cook, who asked for a moment of silence to honour Ron Graham, the latest person who had died on the streets of Toronto. Graham was a former horse trainer from Cape Breton—a tough, wiry guy with a sharp wit. Lauro Monteiro, executive director of the Haven Toronto drop-in, remembers Graham quietly pulling him aside multiple times over the years to ask him to help someone who was suffering, who needed boots or a jacket. “I used to look forward to him coming in,” says Monteiro. On the morning of October 28, Graham’s friends went to check on him just inside the wrought-iron gates of Osgoode Hall, where he’d been sleeping. They found him dead. His name was the latest on a list now over 900 names long.
“We meet each month for two reasons,” said Cook. “The first is to remember and grieve and celebrate those who die without housing here in Toronto. We also meet here to say it isn’t okay that this keeps happening.” Everyone took a moment of silence. Two men sang a song, one of them strumming a battered guitar. The church opened its doors for a community lunch. The ceremony was performed with a sense of resigned familiarity. It was a ritual the people in the courtyard had observed for years now, and one they would continue observing into the future, with no end in sight.
This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.