The growing ranks of the homeless

MARY JANIGAN January 13 1986

The growing ranks of the homeless

MARY JANIGAN January 13 1986

The growing ranks of the homeless


It is 10 p.m. at the women’s shelter in downtown Ottawa’s All Saints Anglican Church, and 19 homeless women are shuffling in from the icy cold. There is the shelter’s oldest guest, Frances, a wizened 82-year-old who rarely talks and never laughs. There is the widow Ellen, 54, a former domestic who tells tales of blood and violence to anyone who will listen and whose dreams are alway marked by cries and groans. There is 43-year-old Karen, a former psychiatric patient with a mind muddled by years of electroshock therapy. And there is Elizabeth, a bedraggled 30-year-old who has given up trying to take care of herself. Declared Catriona Galt, 33, the shelter’s founder and co-ordinator: “They are the new untouchables. Nobody wants to know them. And nobody wants to know about them.”

That disturbing scene last week at the two-year-old Ottawa hostel is one of the many dramas that play their course every night across the nation as the homeless scramble for food and shelter. No one knows how many thousands of people trudge from hostels to soup kitchens on Canada’s streets. But church and social workers agree that their number is growing in most cities and that their composition is changing. Only a decade ago most were men in their 40s or 50s—“winos” whose presence was taken for granted as a fixture of urban life. But the new homeless of the winter of 1985-86 include large numbers of women and young people—and a startling number of families. Many have psychiatric problems—but well-meaning provincial officials have released them from institutions. Some—like Toronto bag lady Drina Joubert, who froze to death in an abandoned truck last monthhave alcohol or drug problems. Said Patrick Johnston, executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO): “We cannot restrict compassion to those we like. There is something wrong when there are so many people who do not have shelter in a society as rich as Canada’s.”

The psychiatric patients began to people the nation’s streets in the mid1960s when legislators decided that many inmates of asylums would be better off in so-called normal surroundings. Since then provinces have closed about 45,000 psychiatric hospital beds. But the policy was implemented too quickly—and with too little attention to the provision of alternate care. Declared Rev. Sylvio

Michaud, the director of the Montreal Roman Catholic Archdiocese hostel, La Maison du Père: “The government’s philosophy is to empty the psychiatric hospitals. The older men are afraid of the young psychiatric patients because they can become violent.” Added Toronto’s Fran Caron, a homeless woman of 39: “Hostels drive you rangy. There are all kinds of people there, people on

drugs, from mental institutions, from prisons. And even women fight.”

But even the sanest can be driven into uncertainty by the stress of life on the streets, accompanied almost inevitably by poor nutrition. René Michaud, a 25-year-old resident in Michaud’s shelter whose arms are coated with tattoos and whose eyes smoulder with rage, told Maclean's that he has never held a job and added: “I’m always alone. You can’t trust just anybody.” At Halifax’s Hope Cottage soup kitchen, a portly man in his mid-40s called Gerry mutters “Hello, Lollipop” to blank walls. Ottawa’s Galt cites the case of 30-year-old Elizabeth, who is so worn by the strain of living out of a paper bag that she sits in flimsy clothing and no boots outside the church even on cold winter days.

Adding to those problems are the

newly homeless women and youths. Many have no skills—and it is unlikely that they will ever find a job. In Montreal there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 homeless women—but only 77 beds for them in emergency shelters. In Halifax, Hope Kitchen director Rev. Peter McKenna says that when the soup kitchen first opened in 1970 the average age of its patrons was 55.

Now, 60 per cent are under 35. Montreal’s Michaud added that many of the new homeless are victims of innercity renovations which have turned former rooming houses into condominiums and upper-income homes.

Those problems are compounded by the high cost of living. The unofficial Statistics Canada poverty line in 1984 was $9,800 for a single person in Toronto and $20,000 for a family of four. But Toronto welfare payments are only $286 per month for an unemployable person as well as a shelter allowance up to a maximum of $115, for a total of $4,812 a year. Said NAPO’s Johnston: “There is no province that pays what is even close to the poverty line. Combine those low payments with high rents and low vacancy rates and you realize why families are starting to show up at emergency shelters.”

Across Canada, shelter residents tell haunting stories of destitution—and of the dignity and bravery of the human spirit. Calgary’s Ruil Doble, 43, has lived on the streets and in the provincial Single Men’s Hostel for five years. Before that he joined other transients as they huddled for warmth wherever they could find it, and he recalled: “We shared our liquor, we shared our tobacco, we shared our pity and shared the warmth of our bodies. We came through with a degree of togetherness and sharing. I think that’s what kept us warm.” Vancouver’s Wes, 32, said that last fall he slept in a viaduct, huddled in a sleeping bag, because, he

said, “it beat paying $200 for a roachinfested, mouse-infested room.” Montreal’s Marie, 25, told Maclean's that she spent four years alternating between staying with friends and sheltering in a small tent she pitched on undeveloped land on the eastern tip of the island of Montreal. Now she is supplementing her $164 monthly welfare cheques with a $2.50-an-hour job delivering pamphlets door-to-door. Despite the pressures of poverty and homelessness, Marie says that she never resorted to theft or prostitution. “I want to succeed,” she insists. “I’m morally capable of surviving anything.”

Other homeless people struggle with alcohol or drug addictions. Montreal Christian Brother Yvon Larente says that many of the men at La Maison du Père hostel waste their monthly welfare cheques in a few days of riotous

living. “They go out and take taxis, buy a case of beer, pick up a prostitute and take a room,” he said. “Our concern is how to stop them from spending their whole cheque in three days.” Toronto’s Maryanne Dzandzala, 25, has spent four of the last six years in jail for such crimes as forging prescriptions. She cannot get admission to many hostels because she drinks, takes drugs and sometimes becomes violent. To avoid a night in the open, such people often openly commit crimes to gain the meagre comfort of a jail cell.

There are no easy solutions for anyone living on the nation’s streets, although social workers are almost

unanimous in their calls for increased social assistance payments and affordable housing. The federal government estimates that one million Canadians either live without shelter, live in substandard accommodation or spend more than 30 per cent of their income to maintain a residence. Despite that need, Ottawa has only $1.2 million in its housing budget to help them. Said Johnston: “It is a political issue. And if there is no public outcry about the homeless, politicians will be less inclined to help.”

In the short term, most hostel directors say that Canada needs more shelters. Disturbed by the sight of thousands of mentally ill people wandering the sidewalks and subways, New York Mayor Ed Koch ordered police this winter to put all homeless into shelters whenever the temperature drops below

freezing, and he has requisitioned unused armories to make that possible. Toronto Mayor Arthur Eggleton told Maclean's that he is considering a similar order. But temporary shelters are poor substitutes for homes. And many indigents simply refuse to go to hostels that place them in large, crowded rooms, strip them of their possessions and impose childlike rules such as a 9:30 p.m. “lights out.”

One of those holdouts was Joubert, the 41-year-old bag lady who froze to death on a night when there were 19 beds available in nearby hostels. Joubert hated large institutional rooms, according to Rev. Bradley Lennon, pas-

tor of Toronto’s All Saints Anglican Church. When the smaller hostels were full, she crawled into the cab of a pickup truck in a crumbling downtown garage. There she lived—and there she died—surrounded by her meagre shopping bags of clothes, empty wine bottles; crumpled cigarette packages, stomach medication and an alarm clock. Lennon said that Joubert hated the indignity of growing old in a shelter that could never be a home. And he added, “As long as welfare rates are not high enough, we are going to have more people who are freezing out in the cold.”

MARY JANIGAN with JANE O’HARA in Vancouver, SALLY BANKS in Calgary,

GARRY MOIR in Winnipeg, ROBERT BLOCK in Toronto, DAN BURKE in Montreal,

CHRIS WOOD in Halifax and LENNY GLYNN in New York