On February 28, I took part in the 360ºExperience for the third year. This event is a major fundraiser for 360ºkids, a youth shelter in Richmond Hill which had participants walking in the shoes of homeless youth, each with a scenario to follow for the evening. My partner was Shayne Goldberg from 360ºkids and our scenario was to make our way to Covenant House in Toronto. We took a Viva bus to Finch, then a subway to downtown.
I had taken the subway many times, but this time, I focused on these facts: In my possession I had a sleeping bag, one more bus ticket, one more subway token, and three dollars in change. Our persona was an 18 year old girl who, after coming out to her family, was promptly kicked out of the family home. She couldn’t have predicted her parents reaction, which now, has led her to search for shelter on a -13 degree night.
We walked to Covenant House from the nearest subway station after a quick stop at a 7-eleven for cigarettes. On this night, we had a tour guide of sorts with us. “Joe,” has been a client at 360 Kids for the last two years. Before accepting help at 360 Kids, he had spent 7 years on the streets of Toronto. His personal story was one of a broken family, immigration, and drug use. Those cigarettes would be important as the night went on…
Covenant House staff gave us a tour of their facility. Programs, training, meals, and warm beds are the hallmark of Covenant House, one of the GTA’s best known youth shelters. Our tour guide was the night supervisor who explained how the house rules have changed over the years to allow clients some flexibility with regards to coming and going, and even little things like stepping outside for a late night cigarette. After our tour, we asked the important question: any beds available tonight? No. All 93 beds were full. So we left to wander the streets of Toronto. It was midnight.
Not knowing the streets of Toronto well, I just followed my guide and listened to his stories. One of the first things I noticed was that when we were walking towards any group of young men, Joe would shout out a “hey brother” to be answered by “respect” shouted back. He would tell us to keep walking, while he spoke privately to the street person. Turns out that the street folk were curious as to why he was walking with us. They suspected we were police. Joe would say we were friends and hand out a cigarette or two. We walked.
Joe toured us around to an area where a friend of his slept in what looked like a pile of construction materials covered by a tarp. The average person driving or walking by wouldn’t even think that a person would be sleeping there. Turns out his friend wasn’t there. We passed several people as we headed to a nearby 24 hour Mcdonalds. We each had $3 and thought it would be a good time to get a drink.
When we were getting our coffees, Shayne and I decided to purchase several Mcdonald’s gift cards to hand out. It just seemed that too many people were outside tonight and those gift cards would be their “ticket” to get some food and be inside to warm up. We met a couple who seemed to be in a bit of difficulty. They had lost the key to the room that they were renting and needed to call their landlord. Shayne loaned them her phone and afterwards, we all chatted.
The main topic was the cost of housing in the Toronto area and the minimal government benefits that were available. Many questions came to mind and we didn’t probe to find the answers. Did these two have jobs? Did they have training or skills? No cell phones, and no key to their place. What problems lead this couple to be in this Mcdonald’s at 2am on a weeknight?
We walked some more in the direction of Gerrard and Jarvis to see first hand an area of the city notorious for prostitution. This area was a few blocks away from the Ryerson University building where Shayne studied her social work degree. Ironic. More ironic that she knew students who lived in homes that were located on streets that were home to brothels.
Joe walked us down some lane ways to show us the shipping containers that could not be seen from the street. He described these as “extra rooms” for “business.” He noticed one that didn’t have a lock and opened the door. We noticed the roof was partially broken, and that the mattress inside was half covered by snow. Back on the sidewalk, he pointed out that the homes on this block had all their windows boarded up. To the average suburban person, these homes looked condemned and ready to be demolished. Joe said they were brothels. With the windows covered with wood, those inside wouldn’t know if it was day or night.
We walked and were approached by some men. Another quick reply by Joe, a few cigarettes handed out and we continued on our way. Ahead of us was a tall apartment building and Joe pointed out that all the lights were out except one. He described that unit as a “trap house.” The light is always on and those inside were involved in drug use, prostitution or both. We would notice more of these trap houses in tall buildings as we walked this evening.
As we continued we were taken aback by a dark sedan slowing down near us. Joe told us to keep walking as he approached the car. The car took off. A few minutes later the car returned and naturally we were afraid. As quickly as the car appeared, so did our relief….it was an uber! The driver rolled down the window to ask if we had called him.
Our final visit to the 24 hour Mcdonalds was at 3:30am; we were all in desperate need of a washroom. The 3:30am Mcdonalds’ scene was very different than earlier this night. There was a security guard now and the place was very full. A variety of people, all with unique stories. It was here that we met a man in his early 30’s who was very talkative. Within minutes we heard about his drug addiction, how this lead to fights with his brother and his subsequent homelessness. He was a mess – physically and emotionally. He told us his story as we waited in line for the washroom.
We also met Dawn. Dawn was happy to let Shayne use the washroom ahead of her. “Go ahead, I just have to fix my face.” Dawn had some scratches on one side of her face. She didn’t say why, but once at a table, she too was very talkative. Shayne and Dawn got into a conversation. We learned that Dawn was homeless and she had a boyfriend who was also homeless, and a drug addict. Dawn had seen people die due to overdoses, but didn’t know about naloxone kits. We looked at each other and couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought to bring a couple of kits with us on downtown visit.
Subways weren’t running so we took the bus to Finch Station. It was now 4:30am. I happened to look up at a tall building….all the lights were off except one. Joe knew that trap house as a drug den. Since Finch station was locked up, in order to keep warm we started to walk north. Happily we found a Tim’s and entered to the warm smell of coffee. We decided to stay in for a while until the Viva bus time.
We hadn’t slept a wink. Our downtown street experience was sandwiched by long rides on public transportation. We had met some folks who were living day to day lives that were unpredictable at best. We saw a side of Toronto that accentuated the fact that social services, shelters and addiction services are very important and need funding.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.
We can do better.
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