Winter of discontent

RAE CORELLI February 5 1996

Winter of discontent

RAE CORELLI February 5 1996

Winter of discontent



One of them is a building cleaner who has not worked in two years, eats at a soup kitchen in north-end Halifax and lives at the YMCA. Another is a 35year-old Vietnamese immigrant, sheltering in a hotdog van from the Arctic-like Montreal night.

Still others, many of them fugitives from record-low temperatures elsewhere in the country, live under the False Creek bridges in Vancouver where the weather, while wet, is at least warmer. All belong to the dispirited ranks of the nation’s homeless—single mothers with small children, itinerant and despairing job-seekers, abused or alienated teenagers, alcoholics, drug addicts and the mentally deranged. Because of welfare cuts, a shrinking supply of low-rent housing, mass layoffs and diminishing psychiatric services, there may be more of them in Canada now than in any winter since the Depression. “I’d say it’s worse now than it has ever been,” says Jim O’Neill, director of community liaison for downtown Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. “People seem to be more desperate, more depressed.”

Nobody knows with any accuracy how many thousands of Canadians have been dispossessed. But there is evidence of how serious the problem has become in the head counts by private and municipal shelters, food banks and soup kitchens, and hospital and church outreach programs. City officials estimate that

the number of homeless in greater Montreal has reached 20,000 and is rising by about 3,000 a year. In Vancouver, the Quest Outreach Society serves more than 15,000 meals a week. Calgary’s Connection Housing Society puts the city’s homeless at around 1,200, up from 400 three years ago. And in Metropolitan Toronto, which experienced the coldest November in 20 years and the coldest December in six, some councillors are proposing that indigents be housed in hospital wings closed by cutbacks in health-care funding.

But even those disturbingly high figures do not begin to embrace all of the homeless. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the down-and-out—some confused, others rebelliously antisocial,

Welfare cuts and layoffs add to the ranks of Canada's homeless

paranoid, fearful or on the run—avoid the social-safety net except for an occasional meal at a soup kitchen. They wander city streets by day and at night, wrapped in newspapers or plastic garbage bags, huddle in abandoned buildings, in basement stairwells, bus shelters, derelict cars and discarded packing crates. St. Michael’s Hospital treats dozens of homeless every week for such ills as frostbitten feet, respiratory infections, broken bones and severe burns from sleeping on sidewalk heating vents. In early January, one of them—56-year-old Eugene Upper—froze to death in a Toronto bus shelter. “I ride my bike all around so I know most of the sewer grates and places like that,” says Metro

Councillor Jack Layton. “We don’t have any vacant sewer grates.” Canada’s legion of impoverished people has expanded as the provinces—already financially strapped—absorb funding cuts from Ottawa. Along the way, the profile of the homeless has been changing as well. For one thing, they now include people who have never before had to depend on charity for food, clothing and a roof over their heads. For another, single men over 50 no longer dominate those seeking help; now, males are in their 20s and 30s. “One time, seniors would have represented most of the people who come here, but not any more,” says Roman Catholic deacon Douglas Clarke, who runs Hope Cottage, a privately funded soup kitchen

in the north end of Halifax. One of

his regulars is Gary, who has not worked in two years and asked that his last name not be used. “My trade is cleaning and I’m very good at it,” he says. “But now they want you to have Grade 12 to do cleaning.” The city pays for his room at the Y and gives him $150 a month.

An even more worrisome development: social workers have tracked an increase in the number of single parents, mostly women, with small children. In Metropolitan Toronto, for example, hostel services director John Jagt says families account for most of the climb in appeals for help. Metro’s shelter network of 45 hostels and 15 leased motels this year will cost taxpayers and private donors $65 million. (Eighteen churches also are offering food and shelter.) Between 1981 and 1994, Jagt says, his caseload grew by 1,000 to around 2,800, but it jumped an additional 1,000 last year alone and he is now running out of space. He says the welfare cuts that took effect in Ontario last October “have exacerbated what was already a difficult situation.”

Among the families living in a string of motels along Kingston Road in the eastern Toronto suburb of Scarborough, there is vocal support for Jagt’s diagnosis. Jamaican-born Donna Lloyd, 26, was evicted from her $725-a-month apartment last October after Ontario’s welfare cutbacks dropped her monthly cheque to $1,086 from $1,386. Now, she lives rent-free with her two children, Mikeisha, 6, and Dominic, 3, in a 12-by-15-foot room containing a double bed, a cot, laundry hampers, a microwave and a TV set. There is a toaster on the dresser and a vase of artificial flowers by the window. “My kids are pretty good, they adjust,” she says. “I tell them things, like we’re on vacation. It helps.” She has worked as a sales clerk and cashier but cannot find a job, and she is angry. “I want to challenge [Ontario Premier] Mike Harris to live on welfare for six months,” she says, “and he has to live in one room.”

A half-mile up the road, 33-year-old Paula Benness is quartered in a motel-like Metro Toronto family hostel with her asthmatic children, Justin, 9, and Ashley, 8, in a cluttered room that has a double bed, double bunks, a crib, a refrigerator, two chairs and a circular table. In 1994, Benness had to abandon a Humber College course because she could not afford both tuition and day care. Then, when Ontario slashed her welfare cheque by the same amount as Lloyd’s, she was evicted from the apartment where she had lived for eight years because she could no longer make the rent. She gets $10 a day from social services for food as well as the welfare cheque, and she is saving what she can to move into a place of her own. “I’m tired,” she says. ‘Tired of living in shelters.” She has experience in computer billing and says she spends four days a week looking for work. “They ask for a résumé,” she says, “you send it in and you never hear from them again.”

With minor variations, the squeeze is evident across the country. In Vancouver, Quest Outreach Society co-founder Ian Gordon says hunger and homelessness are getting worse. “Our numbers have grown 20 per cent in the last three months and in some of our food depots it has doubled,” he says. He attributes part of the demand to British Columbia’s controversial three-month residency requirement for welfare—which has plunged the province into a legal battle with Ottawa. Indigents fleeing harsh weather and welfare cutbacks in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, says Gordon, have wound up “sleeping under the bridges and viaducts, parks, all over the place.”

Meanwhile, Judy Graves, co-ordinator of Vancouver’s tenant assistance program, says there are homeless people “everywhere in the city.” Barb Daniel, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, says estimates of the city’s homeless run as high as 3,000. The Salvation Army’s Harbour Light Centre feeds 730 people a day. “Drugs and alcohol seem to be ma-

jor players in this situation,” says the centre’s executive director, Maj. Samuel Fame. At the door of their convent in the downtown east end, the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Atonement hand out sandwiches to 700 people a day.

Individuals as well as organizations try to help. In Montreal, Emmett Johns, a 67-year-old Roman Catholic priest, founded a service agency that now runs a 20-bed shelter for homeless kids—maximum stay, including breakfast, 45 days a year. Father Johns operates its outreach program—a battered old Winnebago van in which he patrols the seamier sections of the downtown core at night. He stops at five different locations to dole out coffee, hotdogs, packaged food, bus tickets and cigarettes. ‘There are thousands of kids out there,” says Johns. “They’re runaways mostly, a lot of them from institutions and broken homes.” One night in January, the rootless crowd gathered in the van included a youngster who keeps on the move be tween Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa; an 18year-old transvestite and a Vietnamese immigrant called Hoan. “I’m on welfare,” said Hoan. “I can’t remember the last time I had a job.”

Displaced families are the newest challenge for social services; homeless kids are a perennial. When Halifax’s Long Term Services for Youth Association opened a drop-in centre for young people in 1994, says executive director Linda Wilson, “we thought we would have to drum up business.” Instead, the initial client list jumped from 200 to 440. Kids are told to leave home rather than put up with abuse, says Wilson, “but there’s no place to go.” Teenagers often find they can no longer fit in following family

breakups and remarriage, she says,

“so they end up on the street. The kids we’re seeing are starving to death, they’re freezing. They’re kids with no socks and crappy little sneakers.”

In downtown Toronto, the 88-bed Covenant House is full. Between October and December, 1994, it handled 3,483 visits from transients seeking medical care, food and counselling.

During the same period last year, the numbers reached 4,664. For the whole of 1995, nearly 6,800 youngsters—an increase of more than 1,000 in a single year—got medical treatment from the centre’s three nurses and visiting physician. One resident, a 21-year-old named William, left home after his father re-

married. “On the street you survive whatever way there is to survive,” he says, pausing to reflect. “I don’t really know how all this started. If I knew how it started, I’d have something to be mad at.”

If the hard-luck segment of society is frustrated and angry, it has plenty of company—those in the social services field who are trying to help. And they have a common target: the nature and severity of government spending cuts. In 1993, the Alberta government of Premier Ralph Klein chopped welfare rates—already among the lowest in Canada—by 15 per cent. Dermot Baldwin, executive director of the nonprofit Calgary Drop-in Centre Society, which serves 800 meals a day, says he is not opposed to federal and provincial cutbacks in principle, but they have to be implemented sensitively. “When you need the service most,” he adds, “when you’re reducing everything else under the sun, and you turn around and reduce the very services that are there to support people, it is absolutely unwise.” Adds Baldwin: “The whole mentality of our society has changed. It’s much easier now to step over people in the street.” Susanna Koczkur, executive director of Calgary’s Connection Housing Society, says the agency has witnessed a 10to 20-percent increase in appeals for help every three months for the past

2 lh years, and federal and provincial cutbacks are responsible. On Jan. 20, at a Montreal conference of social activists from across Canada, delegates vowed to fight government cuts in social services. “Our governments are making the underprivileged pay for the debt,” said Rolland Vallee, spokesman for the Social Committee of South-Central Montreal. In Vancouver, Daniel of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association said cutting welfare spending made no sense because it only shifted responsibility onto the correctional system and health care.

In Toronto and elsewhere, homelessness is already putting pressure on health services. “We’re seeing more

women coming in with stress-related disorders,” says O’Neill of St. Michael’s Hospital. “Women suffering from anxiety, workingpoor women worried about losing their day care and about how they’re going to cope on social assistance. There is an almost palpable fear about how they’re going to get by. You wonder when the tolerance level in society is going to snap.” To Metro Council’s Layton, cost-cutting governments have gone too far. “Pretty soon,” he says, “people are going to react and say, “Wait a minute, we didn’t have in mind people dying in our streets.’ ” So far, at least one—and probably others—already have. And winter is a long way from over.