SOME OF THE THOUSANDS WITHOUT ANY HOME STILL DARE TO HOPE
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SOME OF THE THOUSANDS WITHOUT ANY HOME STILL DARE TO HOPE
The new year, bearing the hopes and resolutions inspired by a clean calendar, is barely more than 50 hours old. But Forges Ferencz, half awake in his bed of rags on a concrete ledge of a parking garage in downtown Montreal, is raging against times past. He denounces “the Queen” and the government, “who stole a fortune”—when, and from whom, are unclear. He says that he is 64, fled his native Hungary in 1956 (when Soviet tanks crushed a popular uprising), moved first to Vancouver, and then
to Montreal in 1974. “Very bad time in Hungary,” he tells a Maclean’s reporter. “Very bad time in Canada.” He says that he gets his food from garbage, and that he has been sleeping outdoors for 19 years. Does he worry about his health? About not having a home? No, he says, “I’m going to die anyways.”
In cities across Canada in those early hours of Friday, Jan. 3, hundreds of men and women, old and young, spent the night outdoors—not all of them as angry, as addled or as utterly without hope as Ferencz. Others found shelter in a hostel. The luckiest slept in longer-term
temporary quarters. They are among as many as one in 100 Canadians—according to social workers, between 135,000 and 270,000 now—who, by misfortune or choice, mismanagement or fate, and almost invariably in abject poverty, have no fixed address.
To gather impressions of how that huge underclass of Canadians exists, Maclean ’s staff correspondents, with photographers, logged the lives of dozens of the homeless—and those who help them—in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver during the 24 hours of Jan. 3. They encountered despair and mental
derelicts, disease and misfits, filth and drunks. But the reporters also met dozens of people who have hope enough to offer care. And even among the homeless ones, there are some who care enough to hope. Some of their stories:
• At 9:30 p.m., on the eastern fringe of Metropolitan Toronto, Bernardita, 42, is winding down a tiring day, relaxing in the single room, about 20 feet by 15 feet with four beds, that she shares with her four children. That Friday, like every weekday, began for Bemardita at 6 a.m. She and the children travel to their schools on the opposite side of the city. Bemar-
dita herself, after giving up two low-paying jobs, is attending a high school to equip her for a better life. Late last year, her unemployed husband was charged with assaulting her and ordered in court to stay away from her. She and her two sons and two daughters moved out of their three-bedroom apartment to get away.
They are waiting for a roomier public housing unit. Meanwhile, they subsist on welfare of $25 a day in the converted motel run by Metro’s community services department. “Sometimes I get depressed,” says Bernardita.
• The Halifax weather is blustery and below freezing, and the crew-cut youth shivers in his bulky windbreaker in a store doorway at midday, asking passers-by for spare change. At age 17, Frank (Bomber) Wadden, who grew up in foster homes, has lived for three years on the streets. Today, he has been out in the cold since early morning, he says, when the police rousted
him and others out of a vacant downtown building known locally as Hell’s Hotel. There, homeless youths often huddle at night under mouldy blankets—drinking cheap wine or using drugs, if they have the cash for them—and wait for dawn, or the police. “On a good day, I can make $15 to $20,” Wadden says.
• In the dark at 6:30 a.m., Peter Goodwill, 30, a Sioux Indian from Standing Buffalo Reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., leaves the Calgary Drop-In Centre, a no-questions-asked downtown hostel that since November has provided him with a mattress on the floor and breakfast. He says that he is heading for a temporary-job agency, but work is hard to find. Goodwill left home for good just two weeks before he was to graduate from high school. Since then, he has drifted around Western Canada, holding mainly menial jobs. Soon, he hopes to complete high school, he says, and then study social work— perhaps even law—in university. But he adds that those dreams may be difficult to realize. “It is hard to say if I will ever leave street life,” he says. “It is the only life I know.”
• A sleeping bag wrapped in green plastic provides a buffer from a cold sidewalk on Vancouver’s lower east side as Mike sits smoking a cigarette, waiting for the Salvation Army’s Crosswalk drop-in centre to open at 12:15 a.m. It is a place for people who missed getting a hostel bed to have free coffee, doughnuts and warmth. Wind-driven rain will be back in a few hours, slanting through the broken windows of a burned-out van where Mike and his friend Ed—they withhold last names—will spend the night. Mike says that he is 25, born in Richmond, just a few miles south. He left school and “family problems” when he was 15, and has been on the streets ever since. But he smiles from under his red-and-white baseball cap. “It ain’t a great life, but you can survive.”
• Half-Pint is the only name she gives as she and a friend, Suzie, sit in a downtown Toronto doughnut shop at 2:30 a.m. for their first food in a day—by choice, rum-ball desserts—a stranger’s gift. She appears to be about 20 years old. But Half-Pint reveals something of herself and her panhandling life in a notebook of verses that she has written. One rhyme ends:
An old man in a wheelchair begs for help with his grey eyes, but his cardboard box is full of greedy smirks from passers-by.
And the cars that pass so quickly, evaporating in the fog, they’re going home to eat their dinner, going home to feed their dog.
This night, Half-Pint and Suzie, street companions since they fell out with their families five years ago, join a friend named Kevin on a warm-air sidewalk grate. They look cozy, even cheerful, after their treat.
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