Leaving Toronto was the only way I could get myself off the streets

Leaving Toronto was the only way I could get myself off the streets

I left home in 1981, when I was 16, and travelled across Canada playing bass guitar in pop and country bands. Before long, I decided to settle in Toronto. Back then, even for someone without a steady income, rental housing in the city was affordable. My first bachelor apartment cost me $390 per month. I could easily make rent by working warehouse jobs for $9 per hour. It was exciting to live in a big city. I was young and hopeful, and I never thought I’d need to worry about something as fundamental as housing.

The author, earlier this year.

Over the next several years, no matter where I moved within the city, I always managed to find housing I could afford. In 2004, though, things began to shift. I was living with a housemate who had stopped paying his half of the rent. Exasperated, I moved out and rented a room in a Parkdale rooming house for $300 per month. It was a troubled household, rife with alcoholism. After a year, I left without first arranging another place to live.

That June, I found a large room for around $400 per month, near Ossington and Davenport. I was having trouble landing jobs, so I went on Ontario Works, and, later, as years of physical labour took their toll on my body, I applied for the Ontario Disability Support Program, which provides financial support to disabled Ontarians. My government transfers were enough to cover my rent, and so I stayed put for almost a decade. The landlords had a growing family, though, and in 2014 they gave me two months’ notice to vacate.

My housing options began to get worse, and more expensive. After some fruitless apartment hunting, I rented a tiny room for $550 per month in what I eventually learned was an illegal rooming house, where the owner refused to give me the rent receipts I needed in order to qualify for government aid. After that, I shared a two-bedroom apartment in the St. Clair West area with a housemate. It was above a store, which made it noisy at night—a problem for me, since I had been earning a small amount of money shovelling snow and doing odd gardening jobs that required me to be awake at 6 a.m.

When I complained to the landlord about the noise, he began harassing us, accusing of us turning the house into a gathering place for suspicious friends, even though we rarely had visitors. I suspect he was trying to oust us so he could raise the rent for the next tenants.

I gave my notice and began looking for a new place to live. But, for the first time in nearly three decades, the search wasn’t just difficult; it was impossible. My disability income has remained roughly the same since 2009: $1,000 per month. Meanwhile, housing-related financial supports have decreased and rents have skyrocketed.

In the past, I had little trouble finding low-end rooming houses and landlords who were willing to rent to me. This time, even though I did manage to find some rooms and bachelor apartments that I could afford, I kept losing them to working people who were able to come up with cash much more quickly than I could. They had been priced out of the upper-tier apartments that might once have been theirs for the taking, and so they were competing with me, for extremely basic housing that even five years ago would have been beneath their notice. At times, they would offer $100 to $200 more per month than the landlord’s asking price. I was experiencing the full brunt of the city’s housing crisis.

With nowhere else to go, I landed at a homeless shelter. Each 100-square-foot room was crammed with four to six people, some with physical disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, serious psychological disorders or chronic respiratory conditions. There were five washrooms, all of them plagued with plumbing problems. Fearful of disease, I started using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. When the shelter staff smelled the sanitizer on my hands, they thought I had been drinking, which was against the house rules. I had to plead with them not to kick me out. One of them put his face inches from mine and smelled my breath.

The shelter staff kept residents under constant surveillance. Every time we entered the building, they would search our bags for drugs, weapons or other contraband. The environment was prison-like, and, just like in prison, bullying was rampant. I was becoming increasingly demoralized and despondent.

After nearly 11 months in the shelter, with no progress finding permanent housing in the city, I made a decision: I’d leave town. In desperation, I called a friend in Lindsay, Ontario, a two-hour drive northeast of the city. He invited me to stay with him for a little while. Within a week after I arrived, I managed to find a spot in a rooming house—a bedroom with about 150 square feet of living space, plus a shared kitchen and bathroom—for $575 per month. I applied for government housing supports for my first and last month’s rent, and now I’m finally housed again. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford to return to the city, and I know I’m not alone.

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