Is it always the case that once a homeless person is indoors, they are no longer homeless?
Despite the newly topped-up Streets To Homes program, social workers and all, is it possible we’ve fetishized street people as objects of sympathy and forgotten the uncounted hidden homeless?
How do we find numbers for those in constant danger of losing what ad-?hoc housing they have, be it a network of couches across the city or tiny rooms in residential hotels in the east downtown?
A 2007 study by the United Way showed that 93,000 households were raising children in poverty. Toronto’s social housing waiting list holds 189,000 people. And an estimated 9,800 are evicted each year – a third of whom end up in temporary lodging.
When I met Betty, she was sharing a 10-by-10 room with relatives. She lost her partner, John, recently, to a heart attack. Before that, the two spent 11 years pooling welfare cheques and sharing hotel rooms with each other and bathrooms with 15 neighbours.
It’s been years since she felt as if she had a home. “All of these places were stressful,” she told me. “You couldn’t afford to leave. Coming up with first and last month’s rent [for another place] is almost impossible. You’re just trying to survive day by day.”
And that’s all many of the residents do, until the day they don’t. “A lot of our friends died there.”
Some had lived at the hotel for 30 years. Though harried by her circumstances, Betty, in her 50s, has a quiet strength that few well-?housed 30-?somethings could muster. While she and John lived happily together, many such couples stay together more out of necessity than fondness.
It’s not clear which category Ernest and Bev belong in, though the more I talk to Ernie, who welcomes me into his room at the Varsity Hotel on Jarvis with a distinctly Down East calm, the more I think it’s the latter.
“We have some disagreements,” he says. “Most of the time we’ll accuse each other of things, like any couple would do, then back off, and in three or four days we’ll be perfect.”
Not every couple, though, shares a 10-by-5 room. Of course, he’s happy to have a roof over his head. “The only time you hear any disturbance is on the weekend. [In one unit], the couple has been best friends for 20 years, but they beat each other up.”
Ernie’s a frequent mover, having shared rooms with relatives and camped briefly in the north end. He’s been on the housing waiting list for 15 years. When we met, he was having trouble getting his social assistance because each time he moves he needs to set up a meeting with the case worker. Getting the necessary ID was also proving difficult.
Some problems of the underhoused are counter?intuitive – like the fact, for instance, that many actually spend more on food than the properly housed poor because no cooking equipment is allowed in their rooms.
Ernest and Bev make money collecting scrap metal and bottles for deposits. They put in 12 to 16 hours of work to bring in $60 dollars. “If we keep going like that, we’re going to burn ourselves out,” he says.
Bev once worked as a cleaner in the hotel; Betty used to work at the bar that fronted one of her hotels, and she and John worked security at another.
Living like this for even a short time can make it hard to move out; most proper landlords check credit ratings. After 11 years of living in hotels, never paying for cable or a land line and paying for everything else in cash, John and Betty didn’t have a credit rating.
“As far as they were concerned,” she said, “we did not exist.”
When I met Betty, she’d lived on the street briefly, which brought her some assistance from the Streets To Homes program. She hadn’t seen any apartments yet but had been offered a room near the Jarvis hotel strip, at the Fred Victor high-rise on Queen.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in there,” she says. “You cannot go close to that place without being harrassed about crack cocaine or drugs. Everyone understands that. [Streets To Homes workers] told me I didn’t even have to explain.” Since our meeting, she’s been offered a place run by Ecuhomes. She’s also hoping for a settlement from the motorist who crippled John.
Though the province is arguing it should receive a portion of the settlement since John was on Ontario Works (he never managed to get disability payments before he died), she thinks she’ll get enough for an apartment of her own and escape the cycle of hidden homelessness.
I ask her how many people get out. Her gaze grows distant. “Most get out the same way John did.”