“Try to imagine what it’s like to freeze to death!”
That grim suggestion, called out by one of the three dozen people who interrupted city council’s meeting last Tuesday, March 4, shortly after Robert Maurice’s body was found at the bottom of a Yonge Street stairwell, cut through the tumult, trailing a wake of silence.
“Just try to imagine what it’s like to freeze to death.’’
The mix of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty members, street outreach workers and others stopped shouting; security stopped shouting back. The quiet request hung in the air, prompting everyone to momentarily forget their turf and remember what had driven them to defend it.
Soon police appeared and packed protestors into elevators even more tightly than beds are packed into shelters. Normalcy was restored, and the explanations began, if for no other reason than to prevent another silence.
Protestors had been lamenting the tragedy as a preventable homeless death, calling on council to reverse the loss of shelter beds. But Councillor Joe Mihevc said that isn’t the problem. “Every night, we have capacity,’’ he said. “And the reason we have is because we’ve been passing people through to housing. The bottleneck is not at the shelter level, it’s at the housing level.’’
But of greater concern was the location of Maurice’s belongings. “Our understanding is that this person was not in fact homeless,” stated shelter and housing manager Phil Brown, implying that protesters had been wrong to target the city.
And now Maurice became the subject of scrutiny he’d never received while alive. Reporters grew interested in the details of his life, attempting to determine whether and why we – and you – should be interested in the matter of his death.
Robert Maurice lived in a downtown rooming house, nondescript from the outside, ramshackle and meandering within. Several weeks before he died, he broke his leg and had been on crutches. The rooms, one of which he would have shared with another tenant, are best described as storage spaces, though they are, I suppose, relatively comfortable by storage room standards.
It was warm at least. Stiflingly so.
“Officials have a fetish around this absolute definition of homelessness,’’ Street Health’s Cathy Crowe tells me after the protest. “[The fact that] he was housed doesn’t mean he wasn’t homeless. You can’t erase years of homelessness just because a key was put in someone’s hand.’’
While it’s easy to separate The Homeless and Everyone Else into two simple categories, distinct as stoop and vestibule, reality is less rigid.
If Maurice was on social assistance, most of his money would have gone to rent, possibly leaving him to panhandle for the rest. And if there were issues with his all-too-close roommate, or if he just wanted to have a social life, he probably would have done it on the street.
I met Doug Johnson Hatlem, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries on Charles, in the middle of the downtown church’s bustling drop-in dinner. The spirit was more convivial, the conversation more lively and more interesting than it would be in any of the surrounding bars later that night.
Maurice – “Rob’’ – came to the drop-in for meals, and Johnson Hatlem corroborates my speculations. “If you’re poor or don’t feel like you fit in at the boarding house or your friends are folks on the street...” he says, trailing off with a do-the-math gesture.
And if he had substance abuse issues, for example, it’s reasonable to expect there were nights when he couldn’t make it home. That’s happened to most of us at some point – but most of us can afford a cab and don’t risk losing our housing if we show up smelling of drink.
We’ll never know if Robert Maurice was on his way to a shelter. If he was, the closest would have been Seaton House, which even the roughest sleepers tend to avoid. But even if he wasn’t, it’s getting harder to say he wasn’t homeless.
But what’s the better reaction – sharpening axes on his headstone, or looking into his life just enough to drop the subject with relief? Focusing on him starts to feel just as callous as ignoring him.
Activists fear he was a mine-shaft canary, and that the city’s Streets To Homes program, while successful, deflects the focus – and resources – away from an overcrowded shelter system and other street services. Street Health staffer (and OCAP member) Gaetan Heroux says that while there may be beds on a given night, they’re beds many people would never take.
“We were seeing, at [referral centre] 110 Edward, 30 to 40 people sleeping in a common area. Without pillows, without blankets, on chairs, with lights on.” And that, to hear most people tell it, is more comfortable than the rest.
Activists also say the conditions in shelters can make it harder for people to keep housing they may get in the future. “There are wounds that won’t heal,’’ says Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s Beric German. “We’ve done a lot of damage over time. You can’t have people living in these conditions for any period of time and expect them to fully recover.’’
As an outreach worker, Johnson Hatlem has been happy to see results from Streets To Homes, which connects folks who need homes with rooming houses or landlords, and then negotiates a subsidy. “We have seen dozens and dozens of guys and women housed who otherwise would not be,’’ he says. “The city is doing a good job.’’
But he also fears that the initiative doesn’t go far enough, off-limits as it is to couch-surfers and those languishing on subsidized housing lists. The aggressive ticketing of panhandlers sends a mixed message, he says. And he guesses 15 per cent of those given housing are unable to keep it.
I ask him how I – or you, or anyone – could be most helpful. He says advocacy is important. And then he says something tragically moving. “Most folks, they tell me they know where to get a meal,’’ he says. “But they all say it’s hard to maintain friendships. Anyone who comes here wanting to help, I ask them to just sit down and talk with people.’’
Robert Maurice needed to freeze to death before any of us wondered what he might have to say.
NOT EXACTLY HOMELESS, BUT...
552,000 Toronto households have incomes below the poverty line.
71,000 households are on the municipal waiting list for affordable social housing.
48 per cent of all poor children live in families with parents who are employed year round.
$14,875 is the average income of a single parent and child, when living in the city requires at least $24,475 to meet basic needs.
250,000 Toronto households pay more than 30 per cent of their income on rent.
Sources: 2005 Report Card On Child Poverty In Canada; Toronto Report Card On Housing And Homelessness (2003)