Canada SPECIAL REPORT

DOWN AND OUT

Six case studies explore why people live on Canada's streets

March 23 1998
Canada SPECIAL REPORT

DOWN AND OUT

Six case studies explore why people live on Canada's streets

March 23 1998

DOWN AND OUT

Canada SPECIAL REPORT

Six case studies explore why people live on Canada's streets

At 16, Winnipeg-born Jen Watkins has become a garbage gourmet. When she lived on the street in Philadelphia, she and her friends would swarm the trash bins of a park where businessmen ate their lunches. “They would take one bite of a hotdog and throw it out,” she laughs. “Once, we put down a red-and-white checkered cloth and had a picnic.” Now, the pickings are slimmer. “I’ve never found good garbage in Toronto,” she says. Trolling through refuse is an important skill for a homeless minor. So is choosing a “squat”—a safe, abandoned building or hidden alcove to sleep in. And so is developing a friendly technique for squeegeeing—cleaning car windows at an intersection—which Jen says beats panhandling as a way to make enough money for one decent meal a day.

Survival.That is what life comes down to for the growing number of Canadians who live on the street in big cities. Their already limited resources are exhausted by the endless effort to find clothing, shelter and food. For those also grappling with an addiction, added to the list of daily requirements are drugs or alcohol.The struggle exacts a huge toll, leaving most psychologically and physically branded. For passersby, the homeless are often dismissed as losers,’ or ignored.

As Canada faces its worst homeless crisis since the Depression, Maclean’s reporters filed case histories, exploring how six disparate and desperate people ended up on the street— and why they stay there.The contributors were Chris Wood in Vancouver, Dale Eisler in Calgary, Nomi Morris in Toronto,John Geddes in Ottawa, Brenda Branswell in Montreal and Brian Bergman in Halifax :

SQUEEGEEING IN TORONTO

That, usually, is an egg and potato breakfast in mid-afternoon for $3.95. Vegetarian. A few years ago, Jen would never have imagined living this way. On the surface, her home life in Winnipeg had been stable: her parents were teachers, Jen was in a high-school gifted

class, singing in both a youth choir and musical theatre group. But behind the facade was a father with a temper, who, she says, hit his wife and two daughters. “I was told, my whole life, ‘He doesn’t mean it, it happens in every family,’ ” she says, surprised by her sudden tears.

The two girls began to stay out all night, or sleep at an aunt’s place, to escape increased tension between their parents. “Jen was a very bright, capable young lady,” remembers her high-school guidance counsellor, who asked that her name be withheld. Nobody doubts that her parents love her very deeply, the counsellor added. But, overwhelmed by their problems, the family broke down; finally, Jen and her mother moved out and the adolescent entered a new school. She found new, tougher friends and went from preppie girl-next-door, to rebel with hotly colored spiked hair. “I didn’t recognize her, although she was the same girl inside,” remembers the counsellor. “At first, she was headed for university. After that, if you saw her, you might even be afraid of her.”

Soon after, Jen felt further displaced when her mother met a boyfriend, and eventually moved in with him. And so, at 14, she began to hitchhike her way across the country. In the

two years since, she has lived by her wiles in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Ottawa,

Halifax, Montreal, New York City,

Philadelphia and Toronto. She admits to feeling confused, one minute confidently vowing to finish Grade 10—and the next giving way to despondence.

Other squeegee kids have become substitute family. People like “Kid,” whose alcoholic mom raised him (they often slept in cars or motels with her biker-gang boyfriends). Kid—not even best friends know his real name—is 14 and has been on the street for nearly five years, because “I feel safer here.”

He has been in youth detention, usually for assault, and uses the time to catch up on schooling and read about anarchism (“I can’t handle rules,” he says).

Another is Danielle, whose strict parents kicked her out of the house, then called police after she returned and stole money from the family home. And there is Christine, who says she left her rural home because her father is a Nazi who tried to force her into the Heritage Front rightist movement.

Sometimes, Jen and the others scrape enough money together to share hotel rooms. Mostly, though, they resort to abandoned buildings and living off a patchwork of street services. For a

shower or laundry, there is a downtown drop-in centre; for medical treatment, a clinic that does not require a health card. Someone stole Jen’s backpack with all of her ID, as well as the poems and journals she furiously scribbled “to stay sane” while on the road. “That’s when I learned not to base my life on material possessions,” Jen says, trying not to betray a sense of loss. “Now, I just keep it in my head.” When things get too tough, Jen takes to the road again—her next planned stop was the West Coast. “I’m afraid to let people get to know me. I’m afraid to get hurt.”

Jen is back in contact with her estranged parents and sister, all of whom are trying to build up their lives again. She feels destined, she says, to live the squat life until she is a little older. “I’m still young, I can turn my life around.” But statistics show the longer a youth is homeless, the harder it is to make it back into the mainstream. “You see a flower growing and then there’s a blight,” sighs Jen’s former guidance counsellor. “And you wonder if the damage is too great for the flower to continue to bloom.”

STRUNG OUT IN VANCOUVER

For Fabian Lamont, home is the needle-strewn emptiness of Vancouver’s raw downtown East Side. At the age of 37, Lamont has a past that already seems more alive than his present—let alone his future. Ten years ago he was a husband with a loving wife, a truck driver with a paycheque, and a father who delighted in his baby son. Now, “I’m a drug addict—I think about when I’m going to get sick next,” he says. His days and nights revolve around the trinity that keeps the “sickness” at bay: cocaine, heroin and the money to buy them.

There is no room for anything else. Like hundreds of other intravenous drug users in Vancouver, Lamont has contracted HIV— the virus that causes AIDS—from sharing needles. But he is, by all the evidence, a nice guy. Even now, despite a monumental binge that began when his last attempt to go straight failed two years ago, he is friendly, articulate, polite—even funny. He has seldom had trouble finding work: over the years he has sandblasted glass, framed houses, and repaired mining equipment, as well as driven trucks.

Keeping a job was the problem—especially after Lamont learned to embezzle as one way to feed a secret drug habit. Even then, at least one employer kept him on anyway. “People really like him. People have always liked him,” says his ex-wife, who fell for him most deeply of all. In 1987, two years after meeting Lamont in a Toronto bar, she married him. “He is quite a handsome guy,” she says. “And he seemed so innocent and so fragile.”

But Lamont’s air of innocence was a sham. And his fragility, while real enough, had already been put to the test. The autumn that Lamont started school in Toronto in 1966, his father walked out on the family, leaving Lamont’s mother on social assistance. “My mother wasn’t too ... mentally stable,” Lamont says. “So we moved around a lot. As soon as I got ahold of something, we were moving. I went to about 20 schools.” His sister, Sharon, 12 years his elder, remembers her brother as “a very kind, loving person.” Like him, she traces his troubles to their mother’s instability. “He got caught up in her cycle of pain.” Lamont left school without finishing Grade 9. Still, to most appearances, he made it into adulthood with a reasonably promising future. By the time his ex-wife met him in 1985, the good-looking 25-year-old was more than enough to bowl over the eager young

daughter of a Toronto television producer. “It was love at first sight,” she says now. “I pursued him for two years.”

By the time the chase ended, she knew all about the drugs. At first, she thought Lamont’s use was casual—and under control. But he had become addicted—something he could not conceal for long—and had acquired a criminal record for drug dealing. But, she says, “I really did believe if he had somebody to trust, someone he could feel safe with, he’d give all that up.”

He did not—and in 1990, two years after the birth of their son, and shortly after they moved to Vancouver, the relationship finally ended. Since then, Lamont has spent most of his time in search of money to feed his drug habit. Heroin has become part of his mix— he says he now needs $80 a day for that, and $100 to $500 a day for his cocaine habit. “I sell drugs, I steal,” he says matter-of-factly. He seldom sleeps, often scoring and fixing continuously for as long as four days before exhaustion claims him. When it does, he finds shelter where he can—sometimes in the room of another addict, sometimes in one of the $5-a-night flophouses that dot the downtown East Side, sometimes in “places in Chinatown that nobody knows.” Lamont says he knows agencies in the area that would help him get clean if he wanted to. He has done it before. In February, 1995, he entered a rehab program and stayed off drugs for 51 weeks before sliding back into addiction. “It’s really difficult for me to explain,” he says of his inability, so far, to try again.

STREETWALKING IN CALGARY

Home, for the past five months, has been the downtown Calgary drop-in centre, a crowded, bleak haven that offers hot meals, showers and a cot to sleep on for the dispossessed who wander the sidewalks of Canada’s boom capital. How Darlene, 32, got from a privileged past to a grim life as a street prostitute is a question that has no clear answer. The daughter of aboriginal parents, she was adopted at the age of five months into the family of a successful business executive in an international corporation. The youngest of four girls, Darlene attended private schools in places like England, Libya and the United States, becoming a class leader academically, a successful athlete and gaining a reputation as an accomplished clarinet player. “My parents gave me everything,” she says. ‘They were wonderful.”

Her life began unravelling, she remembers, shortly after she left England, where she lived for 11 years, to attend college in New Hampshire. “I was overprotected and didn’t know where to turn when I was on my own—my dad wasn’t there to hold me up,” she says. Already secretly suffering from bulimia, Darlene began drinking too much and skipping classes. “She started partying in New Hampshire and her life has been a mess ever since,” says one of her sisters. “Darlene is likely the smartest of all us girls. It’s really sad what’s happened to her. Everyone has tried to help her, but until she wants to take control of her life, nothing ever changes.” Darlene returned to Canada in 1988 and, since then, has had only sporadic contact with her family. A turbulent marriage ended after one year, in 1993, and she has subsequently moved from one bad relationship to another. “I guess I just know how to pick them,” she says. For 10 years, she has worked “on and off’ as a prostitute. After being evicted from her apartment last October, she has lived a nomadic existence, spending nights with some of her “regular” customers—or at the drop-in centre.

Her right elbow was shattered four months ago when she fell after being pushed by an ex-boyfriend. She has recently recovered from a wound on her hand—the result of a kitchen accident, she says—that became swollen and infected. The soft beauty of her face is still evident despite the worn, tired look of a hard life on the streets. She can speak with the intelligence and wit of someone educated in elite schools, but often slips into the profanities of street language. “I am who I am and if people don’t like it, I don’t give a shit,” she says loudly over lunch in a small crowded

restaurant, alcohol already slurring her words.

Darlene says growing up as an Indian in a non-native family did not affect her because of the multi-racial nature of her schools around the world. But, paradoxically, she admits to spending years wishing she was white-skinned and blond after being mocked as “ape-faced and nigger-nosed” by an elementary-school classmate. “When Darlene came back to Canada, she said she had no identity,” says her sister. Showing a flash of determination, Darlene predicts her life on the streets will soon end. “It’s a hard cycle to get out of—but I’ll do it,” she vows. Until then, she has her memories of a better life to sustain her.

LOSING IT ALL IN HALIFAX

Like a staccato refrain, Mike Simpson peppers his conversation with statements about what it means to live “down here.” For the 37-year-old Simpson, “down here” is where he has been for much of the past year—walking away his days on the gritty streets of North End Halifax, spending his nights huddled in garbage bins, carports, street hostels. The repeated references to “down here” also reflect how far he feels he has fallen—from a

steady, well-paying job, from the warmth and convenience of an apartment and car, from the comfort of friends and family.

Many of those ties to his past life began to fray the day he first fed coins into a videolottery terminal, and thought he got lucky.

“I put $30 into it and won $300—there’s your hook right there,” he says. “You think you’re going to keep on winning. But you don’t.”

Simpson, who had worked for a decade as a home heating technician with a Halifax contractor, succumbed quickly to the spell of the gambling machines. “I’d go into a tavern for lunch and wouldn’t leave until 2 o’clock,” he recalls. ‘You got a pager that’s going nuts and you’re late by an hour, but you have a 300-point bonus on the screen and you don’t want to leave.” About six months after he started gambling, he says, his employer laid him off. Two months after that, he lost his apartment. For a time, he moved back in with his parents. But arguments ensued, often about his gambling, and soon he hit the streets.

Simpson, who is an imposing six feet, eight inches, surprised himself with his ability to survive. “The two things you have to do down here is to stay warm and to stay dry,” he says. He quickly learned which garbage bins provided the best refuge—those without discarded meat products are far less smelly—and how a few sheets of cardboard or a discarded piece of carpet can provide an essential layer of protection against a cold

concrete floor. For safety’s sake, he found that it was best to try to sleep between 7 p.m. and midnight, so as to keep a wary eye open during the early morning hours when life on the street is most likely to turn violent. “It doesn’t matter what size you are when you’re laying down and somebody smashes you over the head,” he notes. For all of that, Simpson was slow to take advantage of some of the

services available to Halifax’s street people.

He says he spent four days without eating before he could bring himself to partake of the evening meal at the Hope Cottage soup kitchen. For several months, he also refused to apply for social assistance. Lorna Pendleton, who helps run a drop-in centre and outreach program for the homeless at Halifax’s Brunswick Street United Church, says Simpson is “a man who lives by his own fairly high standards of conduct,” and who « gets quite upset when he sees people abuss ing the welfare system or the hospitality of the drop-in centre, where he was a regular, g “It tells me that he must have come from a good family,” says Pendleton (Simpson’s par| ents declined to be interviewed). s

But the days and nights on the street have g taken an obvious toll. After being arrested | in January on a number of charges, including 5 mischief, assault and uttering a threat against a member of his family, Simpson underwent psychiatric examinations. These concluded that he was fit to stand trial, but the psychiatric report filed with the court raised doubts about whether he was capable of “appreciating the nature and quality of the acts charged against him and of knowing that they were wrong.” As of last week, he remained in custody, awaiting trial. Pendleton says that Simpson’s actions appeared to her to be out of character, adding that “Big Mike,” as he is known around the dropin centre, is “a gentle guy, a really nice man” who often helped out around the church. But Pendleton notes that Simpson was becoming increasingly frustrated with his predicament. “This is what happens to these guys,” she says. “We see them break a lot. Mike is going down.”

In the second of two interviews with Maclean’s, just a few days before his arrest, Simpson was visibly agitated. He spoke of the mental stress of living on the street and his desire to return to his old life. But then he added: “I really don’t think you can jump out of here. It’s a ladder—you have to take it one rung at a time.” As he knows, there can also be many false steps before reaching solid ground.

DEPRESSED IN MONTREAL

The wooded Laurentians retreat where Claude Gauthier takes long walks is far removed from the bustling Montreal streets he used to roam. “It’s beautiful here all the time,” says Gauthier, 40, taking in the snow-dusted trees at Camp Chapleau near Morin-Heights, Que. The sprawling camp, run by the Montrealbased Old Brewery Mission, has been Gauthier’s home for 16 months—and a salvation of sorts. Once a high-level manager, Gauthier spent half a year sleeping in crowded shelters and a city park. He now spends his days doing renovation work on the camp’s buildings, no longer chain-smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, his stress level “almost zero,” his asthma attacks under control. “It’s good for me,” Gauthier says. “It’s giving me back my strength.”

It had been a long fall. In his mid-20s, Gauthier, a college graduate, started working for a Montreal gasket manufacturer and rose steadily through the ranks to head up the production department. But success came at a price. A self-confessed workaholic, Gauthier routinely spooned down indigestion medicine to calm his churning stomach. “I had no time to take care of my family,” says Gauthier, who lived with his then-girlfriend Claude Lefebvre and their daughter, Justine.

In 1989, unhappy with the way the company was being run, Gauthier, who estimates he had about $250,000 in savings, quit his job and tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a rival company. After that, he says, “I didn’t know what to do. I was lost—and tired all the time.” He felt he could not afford to take time off to regroup. Instead, he

headed to bars and began using cocaine, which soon became a $l,600-a-week habit. Gauthier maintains that if he had seen a doctor, “I would have realized that I was suffering from excessive stress.” Lefebvre, 46, a friendly woman with short grey hair, noticed troublesome signs earlier. “He didn’t drink a lot, but he’s a man who can’t handle alcohol,” she maintains.

According to Lefebvre, he also used pot or hash, which she cites along with alcohol as the reasons behind their breakup. Gauthier says that they split up because he was overworked and neglected the relationship. There appears to be no doubt, however, that Gauthier’s life started spiralling out of control after he left his job. Two years later, a broke Gauthier landed a job as a cook and moved back in with Lefebvre. He quit his restaurant job in 1994 and seven or eight months later, he and Lefebvre split up for good—leaving Gauthier homeless. Initially too ashamed to seek help at a shelter, Gauthier camped out for a month in a Montreal park, unable to afford cocaine or alcohol and battling depression and asthma. Although he has to pause to remember when he first became homeless, Gauthier vividly recalls his first visit to a shelter for a meal. “I wasn’t able to eat,” says Gauthier, noting that tears streamed down his face at the time. Ill from his asthma and in “the full swing of a depression,” Gauthier spent half of the next year in what he describes as “cockroach motel” rooming houses, which he says was all he could afford on his monthly welfare cheque.

In August, 1996, Gauthier boarded an Old Brewery Mission bus for Camp Chapleau. Gauthier stayed ever since—first volunteering for maintenance work and later enrolling in a welfare program that pays him minimum wage for construction work. Those who know him say the camp has performed wonders. “He talks a lot more now,” says Chapleau supervisor Fred Griffith, who adds that Gauthier has gained self-confidence. Lefebvre, who remains on good terms with Gauthier, adds: “He has come a long way in getting his life back together.”

Gauthier now sees his 11-year-old daughter on a regular basis and was able to buy her a portable sound system for Christmas. Gently striking his chest with his fist, Gauthier says “little gestures” like that are helping restore his pride. He maintains that drugs are no longer a problem—and neither is alcohol, which Gauthier maintains was never an addiction (both are banned at the camp). He is not sure what kind of work he wants to do when his welfare program ends in April. He would prefer to stay on longer at the camp. “It would allow me to become even stronger,” he says, acknowledging that he is afraid of winding up back on the street. But that is a fear Gauthier hopes stays with him for life. “When you stop being afraid,” he says, “that’s when it becomes dangerous.” □