MARK NICHOLS February 16 1987


MARK NICHOLS February 16 1987



George Barmby, 41, left his parents’ home in Weyburn, Sask., 15 years ago. He has been on the road ever since, living in hostels much of the time and collecting welfare. Last week he slept at the provincial Single Men’s Hostel in Calgary. In Montreal a 35-year-old woman hunched over a table in a McDonald’s restaurant calls herself Rachelle. A former psychiatric patient, she says that she has not had a place of her own since she came to Montreal from Vancouver a year ago. Recently she was picked up by the police and held for nine days in Montreal’s Tanguay women’s detention centre. Paul Mcllmoyle, a 33-year-old with a history of psychiatric and alcohol problems, stayed last week at Toronto’s Dixon Hall hostel for men. “I try to get here on time,” he explained, “because if you’re late, they won’t let you in and you have to sleep on the street. That’s not so bad, unless it’s real cold. Even then, I know some places where you can stay pretty warm.” Staying warm is often the sole ambition this winter for thousands of Canadians who, like Mcllmoyle, have no homes to go to.

They are members of a subpopulation without homes which welfare authorities say is growing and changing. Canada’s homeless people include a core of chronic dropouts and forced-outs— drifters, alcoholics, drug addicts, bag ladies, battered women and broken men. But increasingly the homeless ranks include disaffected young people, psychiatric outpatients, single mothers, the unemployed or the poorly paid—and others shut out by the steep costs of city housing. They inhabit the streets by day, seek refuge in hostels at night, or

bed down in stairwells, abandoned buildings or parked cars. They are, said Mary King, who works with the homeless as project officer with the Anglican pastoral centre in Ottawa, “a whole group of people that has fallen right out of the system. They survive in ways that would not be possible for you or me.”

Reports from Maclean's reporters across the country indicate that on any given night this winter there are probably about 8,000 Canadians sleeping in hostels or on the street. But other estimates, based on differing definitions of homelessness, go much higher. The numbers multiply when they include all individuals who turn up at hostels during a year, estimates of those who find shelter outside the welfare system, or people in impermanent housing. The Canadian Council for Social Development (CCSD) cites an estimate of between 20,000 and 40,000 street people and says those numbers are conservative. John Jagt, Metropolitan Toronto’s manager of hostel operations, calculated that in the course of a year more than 20,000 different people in Toronto alone are temporarily homeless and in need of emergency shelter.

Not all parts of the country share equally in the problem. In Calgary fewer than half of the 238 beds at the Single Men’s Hostel were in use last week. In Halifax a 28-bed hostel for homeless women with children closed because it was not being used enough. At the same time, the city opened six apartments for homeless families and a 10-bed youth shelter. In Toronto about 2,500 homeless people each day—up from 2,200 a year ago—are stretching the capacity of the city’s 30 emergency hostels to the limit. Jagt estimated that another 200 people

Because the provi psychi

have failed to provide adequate community services, many discharged patients, unable to fend for themselves, wind up homeless

probably sleep on the streets. In Montreal some officials said that half of that city’s estimated 10,000 homeless are young, many of them involved in prostitution and drug dealing, who live where they can —in the city’s subway stations, on heating vents or in parks.

This year the plight of Canada’s—and the world’s—homeless will take on a heightened visibility with the designation of 1987 by the United Nations as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. According to UN estimates, more than one billion people—roughly one-quarter of the world’s population —

are inadequately housed, and 100 million have no shelter at all. But scheduled events—including an April UN conference on homelessness in Nairobi, Kenya, and another in Ottawa in September— are likely to bring few rapid reforms.

Inauspicious notes were sounded as UN member nations quarrelled over definitions of homelessness. In the United States, where between two million and three million people have no homes —at least five times as many as in Canada on a per-capita basis—government officials reacted angrily when they learned that a UN film on projects for the homeless would include American scenes with political overtones displeasing to President Ronald Reagan’s administra-

tion. The scenes were withdrawn.

For its part, the CCSD marked the UN year by undertaking on Jan. 22 a nationwide spot survey of hostels and social agencies in an effort to find out precisely how many Canadians are homeless and to indicate new ways of dealing with the problem. The survey, which was still being compiled last week, preceded a spring schedule of province-by-province conferences. Facing the Canadian social planners is evidence that converging economic and social forces are producing new classes of homeless peoplevictims of the fact that Canada’s stock of affordable shelter is rapidly dwindling.

At the same time, while homeless-

ness in some centres is approaching crisis proportions, social safety nets established by Canadian agencies and institutions have kept the problem from becoming worse than it is. Canada’s social welfare system helps to sustain the indigent with money and medical care. Subsidized public housing is available to thousands of families and to old and disabled people who, in other countries, might be homeless. For those without homes, there is a nationwide network of municipal and privately funded hostels providing at least a warm place to sleep. Many new shelters were organized in recent years by community volunteers to meet the special needs of homeless women and families. “I don’t think there is reason for someone to be

Increasing numbers face a dé

bmen, including some who walk out on abusive husbands or lovers, often vite struggle to find shelter for themselves and their children

forced to stay out on the street,” said Daniel Kosheluk, program manager for Winnipeg’s social services department. “The only people out on the street are those who choose to be, or are so disoriented they do not know where to go.”

Some of those who actually choose the street dislike even the minimal restrictions in the hostels—or the unsavory atmosphere in some crowded dormitories. Downtown Toronto’s Dixon Hall men’s hostel, for one, is a two-storey

A growing subpoj or be

warehouse-like building with sparse amenities. There are showers but no beds. On a typical night last week the 60 men whom the community hostel is licensed to admit slept either on mats or on the floor without blankets. In Halifax, Joseph Poelmans, 37, said that staying in hostels—as he has off and on for 10 years—often hinders his efforts to get off the unemployment rolls. “Say you’re staying at the Salvation Army and you apply for a job,” he explained. “As soon as you give that address, they won’t even look at you.”

Indeed, many social workers expressed concern that simply temporar-

ily sheltering street people fails to help them break out of the cycle of merely surviving. Ottawa’s King, for one, says that even those people who are unlikely to break out “deserve a standard of care, and that standard of care should not be a cot in a church hall.”

But more and more Canadians are learning to live with the intolerable because they cannot find affordable housing. While rising construction costs over the past two decades have pushed up the price of new houses, the arrival of two-income families on the housing market in recent years has driven

prices even higher—by as much as 50 per cent last year alone in some urban neighborhoods. At the same time, the renovation, or “gentrification,” of inner-city neighborhoods has reduced the supply of low-income rental housing. In some cities, notably Toronto and Montreal, property owners say rent controls discourage the building of new rental units. As well, with rent increases restricted by provincial laws in those cities, many landlords have converted and sold off apartments as condominiums.

The Housing Not Hostels Coalition, a Toronto lobby group of churches, hostel workers and community legal clinics, es-

tion of homeless Canadians is forced to seek refuge in hostels by night urn in stairwells, abandoned buildings and alleyways

timated that more than 50 per cent of all central-core rooming houses have been lost in the past 10 years. That left lowincome single wage earners and welfare recipients with virtually nowhere to go. Despite rent controls, single rooms without bedding, window coverings or hot plates rent in Toronto for between $75

and $100 a week. The take-home pay from minimum-wage jobs is about $160 a week and single-person welfare in the city less than $110 a week.

That pattern, in varying degrees of severity, has been repeated in many parts of the country. In Vancouver, where much of the city’s older downtown core has so far escaped gentrification, the city’s social planning department estimates that there are still 7,000 to 8,000 inexpensive

boarding-house or hotel rooms available for as little as about $200 a month. Still, some of the city’s destitute prefer the streets to the cheap hotels. “Those rooms are terrible,” said drifter Willard Bird, 38, who was sleeping recently in a downtown alley alcove. “It’s gotten so the cockroaches are kicking the mice out.” In Halifax a poorly furnished room measuring 1.8 metres by three metres in a row house at the foot of Citadel Hill rents for $75 a week.

In some cities, the upgrading of neighborhoods and the destruction of central core has left some of the poorest Canadians with m

Along with the people forced onto the streets by economic pressures, growing numbers of psychiatric patients have increased the ranks of Canada’s homeless. With the development of drugs that can alleviate many of the worst symptoms of mental illness, psychiatric hospitals over the past 20 years have discharged thousands of patients in the hope that they could live, and be treated, in the community. The capacity of psychiatric institu-

ting houses in the re to go

tions declined dramatically—to under 10,000 now from 47,600 beds in 1960. But the release of mental patients has been to a large degree undermined by the failure of the provinces to provide adequate community services, or living arrangements, for former psychiatric patients.

As a result, many discharged psychiatric patients lose contact with support services and wind up adrift—and homeless. In most Canadian cities, welfare officials estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent of the homeless have psychiatric disabilities. “They get on the streets, they go off their medication and they become psychotic again,” said Dr. Shei-

la Cantor of Winnipeg’s Schizophrenia Treatment and Research Foundation. “We don’t have a total rehabilitation approach. We have a pharmacy.” And with fewer psychiatric hospital beds came a disturbing new trend. Said Cantor: “We are now looking at a whole population of young mentally ill people who have never been institutionalized, unless you call the hospital emergency room an institution. They go from hospital to hospital.”

Welfare officials also note that there are more women among the homeless in recent years. The feminist movement and the growing numbers of women in the workforce have drastically altered ideas of what constitutes a tolerable

home for a woman. A generation ago many women bore abuse by their husbands or live-in boyfriends—simply because they had nowhere else to go. Women who decide to walk out often face a desperate struggle to find shelter. In Toronto, where 10 hostels provide about 440 beds for women and their children, Nellie’s, which has 60 beds, has turned away as many as 222 single women and 47 women with children a month because they could not be accommodated.

Other single mothers cut down on such essentials as food to pay the rent. Some resort to more severe measures. “They become desperate enough to do something crazy and break the law,” said Heather Schneider, founder for Halifax’s Mothers United for Metro Shelter (MUMS). “They are being sent to jail for theft, and some are prostituting themselves to feed their kids. And then, of course, the Children’s Aid Society steps in and takes their children away.”

In the search for long-term solutions to homelessness, experts in the field insist that a two-pronged approach is needed. More low-cost housing is clearly required in some cities, social authorities say, and programs must also be put in place to help many of the homeless overcome the deadening effect of poverty.

Increasingly, governments are responding to those needs with a range of programs designed to meet local needs. Ontario last month announced plans to provide 942 units of affordable housing for single and handicapped people and battered spouses, part of a sweeping, long-term program to help “those most difficult to house.” Nova Scotia is building an 80-unit public housing project in Dartmouth with 10 units set aside for single mothers. In Montreal, a city task force on the homeless due to report in April is discussing a series of projects, including a crash program to develop low-cost accommodation.

Ultimately, the nation’s response to the homeless will measure the value Canadians place on the lives of fellow citizens—no matter what their circumstances may be. So far, Canada’s response has, by and large, been generous. But there is, noted Ottawa’s King, a tendency to treat the homeless as “disposable people.” Said King: “These are citizens and they are entitled to certain things. Let’s give them something decent and see what they can do with it. Until we do that, we can’t blame them for what they are.”

-MARK NICHOLS with ANN FINLAYSON in Toronto and correspondents’ reports


In the search for long-term solutions to in some cities and programs c

iessness, social workers say that more low-cost housing is required eded to help overcome the deadening effect of poverty