There’s no reason for homeless to be frozen in this cycle. Photo by Vincenzo Pietropaolo
John Massie was a poor man living among bank towers. And on January 6, John Massie was a cold man who died by fire.
Early that morning, seeking shelter in the ATM foyer of a Bank of Montreal at Yonge and King, he tried to light a cigarette and lit himself instead. He died of his burns.
The culprit was likely alcohol on his clothes, and the death was beyond senseless. But destitution and northern climate were contributing circumstances, and Massie's death is a scorching reminder of the greatest privilege of the hale and housed: the right to avoid extremes and inhabit grey areas.
Ours is a world of navigable ambiguities. Maybe it's loitering to hang out too long in a parking garage or a mall, but you could probably do it to your heart's content with the proper deportment. You might not want to, but you could. John Massie couldn't.
"He used the parking garages the next street up," Brian DuBordieu, a friend of his, tells me as we walk along King Street toward the vestibule where Massie died. "The ones here have cameras. You can sneak in where there aren't cameras, find a place in the stairwells and crash till morning. Then you get booted out or beaten up by a security guard."
In the vestibule where he slept more than one winter night, the screens of the ATMs show, against a dreamy blue-sky background, the text "Welcome. How can we help you?" It's easy to imagine Massie having a number of answers. But it's too late to ask him what they were.
For most of us, stepping out for a smoke is perhaps a stupid idea, but not immediately lethal. We find circumstances are forgiving. But "sleeping rough," as they call it, is inherently either too hot or too cold. The warmth we take for granted exists in that comfortable grey area.
We're in a northern climate, and it seems natural to have city-run warming centres all day long in the cold months. Somewhere to go and not be freezing to death for a while.
Absurd though it may be, we don't. Drop-ins have variable hours but most are just open for meals. The city's nine centres do stay open in the evenings, but only in extreme cold. And in overnight shelters, users have to head outside in the mornings. There is, in other words, no city mandate to provide warmth in winter.
We do have Out of the Cold, which provides overnight shelter beyond the regular shelters. Those who administer the system say it has more than enough capacity. Those who use it, like DuBordieu, aren't so sure.
"Last night [January 14], I was the second-last one to get in. Seventeen didn't get in," he says. "I don't know where they get numbers from. People just give up and say ‘Fuck it. I'll take a sleeping bag and go back out.'"
It might have something to do with how beds are counted. Though beds may be available, they may be far from neighbourhoods where they are needed. The spots may be accessible but undesirable.
Toward the end of his life, there were a lot of places Massie couldn't go. Police and security guards had banned him from a number of areas, including the St. Lawrence Market and St. James Town. The business district was one of the few downtown areas where he had mobility.
Seaton House, one of the few shelters with programs geared to alcoholics, wouldn't take him any more, or perhaps he wouldn't go there due to conflicts with others. "People get fed up with each other. Shelters are overcrowded," says DuBordieu. This is why he thinks the language has to change. "I think there should be a lot more ‘safe' housing," he says.
Most of us are free to make choices about where we put ourselves at any given moment, balancing pleasure with safety, cost, location and countless other factors, made of our own personal grey cloth.
But the only greys allowed to the homeless are literal. Cement. And slush. And, in Massie's case, the grey of acrid smoke.