My night camping out with the poor at Mayor John Tory’s
Mayor who's tweeted photos of himself with homeless people has also been the overseer - some would say the architect - of the desperate crisis in our shelter system
By Peter Biesterfeld
May 1, 2017
This is not the first time Brian Dubourdieu has had to put down cardboard to make his bed under a cold night sky, but it is the first time he’s unrolled his sleeping bag on the doorstep of One Bedford Road, Mayor John Tory’s condo building.
Dubourdieu and about 50 homeless people, activists and community members set up camp Saturday, April 22, as part of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Shelter NOW! protest, as the rhythms and songs of the Eastern Woodland Singers bounce off the glass and steel at Number One.
They’re here to tell Tory to put his money where his mouth is.
The mayor who has tweeted photos of himself with homeless people has also been the overseer – some would say architect – of a crisis in homelessness since he took office.
The angry band of visitors parked on Tory’s threshold want shelter spaces opened immediately and an end to what OCAP organizer John Clarke calls abandonment, which has ended in more deaths of homeless people in Toronto’s streets than at any other time in recent memory.
When Dubourdieu got out of the Navy, he came here and got a job framing houses. He hurt his knee, couldn’t work any more and ended up in the shelter system.
He says he’s seen “desperate people do desperate things” in his time navigating the system, but the “craziness” these days is unlike anything he witnessed before.
“People are getting beat up over $20,” says the long-time OCAP member and frontline volunteer. “There are no lockers. When you take your shower, you better have somebody you know keep an eye on your belongings. You’ve got no place to store stuff – you’ve got to take it with you every day. That’s the kind of jungle it is. You prefer to sleep outside and just take a break from the place.”
Dubourdieu is one of the luckier ones. Veterans Affairs got him into social housing about eight years ago.
He’s livid that the shelter system is more broken than ever. “You go into the shelters now, they’re using the dining room floors for overflow. You can’t keep treating people like animals. The Humane Society treats animals better.”
Someone is leading a chant.
“We need shelters, we need housing, and we need them now. / John Tory went and cut them and he’s hiding in there now. / Hey, John Tory! / Add more beds or you’ll be sorry.”
OCAP organizers have lined up an evening of speakers and entertainment.
Anishinaabe song-keeper Cathy Tsong Deh Kwe and the Singers request a moment of silence to remember homeless people, friends to many here, who died on the streets.
Volunteers behind long folding tables are serving up paper plates of shepherd’s pie from aluminum casserole dishes.
Organizer A.J. Whithers informs everyone (with people spread out on blankets and sleeping bags it feels like a room) that the city has been callously jerking homeless people around, denying them their fair entitlement to the Housing Stabilization Fund.
“The city was counting people who have kids, people who get special diet [allowances] or guide dog benefits or other disability benefits, they were counting those things as ‘excess income’ – their words,” Whithers tells the campers.
As dusk settles on the campers, Heinz Klein strums a decent rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. Klein came from Germany more than 30 years ago “looking for different opportunities.” His connections didn’t work out, and he found himself friendless and homeless.
He says it took him four years to find good housing in a non-profit. He’s been there ever since while working as a music and performance coach in Parkdale. After several nervous breakdowns, Klein started working with the mental health survivor community. He’s been doing that for decades. He knows many of the people here.
Klein sings one of his own compositions about his life on the street.
“I am homeless and I know it / Down and out but I am free.”
Rebecca Garrett introduces the night’s other entertainment: a screening of her film Bursting At The Seams, about Toronto’s broken shelter system, which is making a return engagement after airing last November in this very open-air theatre.
People snuggle down into their sleeping bags or curl up in heavily blanketed camping chairs.
It’s well past midnight when the singers sing their last song. The mercury has dropped below 0°C. The handful of police on bikes have long since left one patrol car keeps an eye on things.
Tims across the street is open till 3. Susan Winniford Humfryes is one of the souls warming up there over coffee. A former sex trade worker, Humfryes left the life nearly six years ago.
“I’ve been Susan Humfryes of no fixed address for about a year now,” she says. “But I’ve been lucky because I have friends that are taking me in when I need them, and I have somewhere. There’s always somewhere.”
Humfryes, who grew up on a 100-acre farm near Brighton, is in her late 40s.
“Survival of the fittest, that’s what we’re doing right now. We will survive, because I can scavenge. I’m the best scavenger.” Humfryes volunteers at the Sanctuary Ministries, the 32-year-old Christian hub for the street-involved community on Charles Street.
“I know some women who’ve been in the shelter system so long that it’s their home. Some people I know have been living in a shelter for a year. That’s crazy,” says Humfryes, who says she plans to run for council in 2018 because “I’m mad. There’s no need for anyone to be homeless. There’s no reason for anybody to be hungry. No reason for homeless people to die in the street. Open up shelter spaces now. I remember Toronto the Good. That’s what we need again.”
About 30 have stayed the night, trying to keep warm and waiting for 5 am, when Tims opens back up. The street sweepers come and go.
As dawn breaks, volunteers set up the breakfast table. People shuffle up for coffee, muffins and hot breakfast hash.
Kim Jackson is posing with a collective of women artists from Evangeline’s Women’s Centre, all huddled around a colourful knitted and crocheted quilt spread out on the sidewalk.
“It’s an accumulation of all the little bits of knitting and crocheting from all the different women who are part of the group. It’s just about the experience with homelessness from a woman’s perspective and knowledge of a society that creates these conditions for people to exist in,” says Jackson.
People fold up their sleeping bags. OCAP organizer Yogi Acharya thanks everybody for staying the night and restates the community’s demand for 1,000 new shelter beds now.
Humfryes and friends are going to 25 Charles Street. Organizers are giving last-minute interviews to the breakfast media.
After they’re gone, it looks like there never was a camp-out in front of One Bedford Road.