Esho Korkis hacked and coughed and spit a thick spume of phlegm and apologized.
“I’m the boss here,” said the 52-year-old homeless man, his voice hoarse, lighting up the pinched butt of a cigarette. “I’ve been here for a year and a half.”
“Here” is a wedge of space beneath the subway bridge in the Rosedale ravine, walking distance from one of the poshest residential neighbourhoods in Toronto. There were five people — four men and a pregnant woman — living in the urban cranny on Tuesday morning, hunkered inside ramshackle tents, surrounded by bits of repurposed detritus, protected from the elements by cardboard and ragged tarps and heaps of stuff.
“I have 16 blankets. When I get under there, it’s warm enough.”
But he’s sick. Seems like he’s been sick forever these past five years. “Don’t have any ID so I can’t get OHIP, can’t go to the hospital. Used to have a job driving a truck. Used to have a bachelor apartment. Then they took away my licence because I hadn’t paid child support. Lost the apartment because I couldn’t pay my rent.
“Got into the meth.
“They say I’m just a lazy addict.”
And there you have it — a thumbnail bio of how one man came to be living rough, joining a Toronto homeless population of about 8,000, though only a small minority could be defined as hardcore homeless, rejecting for a wide variety of reasons the beleaguered shelter system.
But they are remarkably resourceful, too. Homelessness is not for the faint of heart.
Korkis and his small itinerant tribe packed up their portable belongings and vacated the space by 11 a.m., after a visit by outreach workers from Streets to Homes. Arrangements were made for each of them to get a bed at a city shelter. All were already aware — warnings had been issued — that the city would be conducting sweeps of homeless encampments on this day, dismantling the nests under several bridges in the Rosedale Valley. Just as the city had cleared encampments under the Gardiner Expressway last March.
Guess Tuesday it was Rosedale’s turn.
Korkis made it clear he’d be returning. “Kick me out from here, I’ll run to the other side.” Of the ravine. “I have no mother, no sister, no wife. And nowhere to go. Or I’ll go up there,” he adds, pointing to the crest of the embankment. Although, in the end, he too agreed to a shelter bed, if only for this one evening.
They all went quietly enough.
Korkis can’t do his meth in a shelter facility.
So what comes first, the addiction or the homelessness? They are so fiercely intertwined, especially for the hardcore subset whose sad circumstances are as much an issue of health and mental illness as impoverishment and indigency.
Frenchie Simard, originally from Montreal, had spent only one night under this bridge before he was rousted yesterday. Before that, six months under the bridge at Sherbourne St.
“We’re just gonna move, come back when they’re gone,” vowed the 28-year-old who, just a couple of years ago, used to work as a cook at The Fifth & Terrace, a four-star downtown restaurant.
“I went down a bad road, let the drugs take control,’’ Simard admitted. “Yeah, crystal meth.”
He can’t abide shelters. “Bed bugs. Violence. Stealing. I won’t live in that kind of place. I prefer my bridge.”
He gets by. “Every day I go binning. You understand? I find what I need. I used to have a nice couch but I left it under the last bridge. Only brought my sleeping bag with me.”
From inside another tent, a female voice shouted, “I’m pregnant!”
Jessica — she didn’t want her last name used because her family lives in Toronto — emerged, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
She’s 30. Had a baby at 15, a daughter who was taken away at birth, says Jessica, by her then-boyfriend. A second baby was stillborn. This one, she says defiantly, nobody will take from her. She and her boyfriend, released from prison six months ago, will be proper parents. “We won’t be homeless when the baby is born, no way.”
But Jessica has been homeless, off and on, since she was 17. Up until recently, she and her boyfriend were living “way deep in the woods” of the ravine. “It got too cold so we came here.” Like Frenchie, the couple avoid the shelter system. Last time, boyfriend got into a fight with someone who was ogling her. “He gets jealous easily.”
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They have no plan for what comes next, although agreeable for the moment to a placement at one of the Homes First shelters. “I have a ‘street mom’ I can go stay with but she’s an old woman and I can’t bring my boyfriend there. We’ve been together for three years. I waited for him to get out of jail. I can’t leave him behind.”
Homeless advocates condemned the city for moving against the encampments, accusing a heartless political regime of imperilling the lives of the most marginalized human beings among us — more names to be added to the nearly 1,000 on the Toronto Homeless Memorial, going back to the mid-1980s, at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Yet this allegedly hard-hearted metropolis earmarked a budget for its shelter, support and housing administration of $235 million in 2019 and was expected to go over budget by $42.5 million.
Not enough, claim the activists, nowhere near enough. But how much would ever be enough?
“This is just a little bit of garbage. It’s not hurting anybody in the grand scheme of things, right?” observed Greg Cook of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network. He watched a dozen city workers clear an ocean of trash under the Bloor St. bridge, delicately collecting scores of syringes, raking up rags and bottles, mounds of discarded clothing, stuffed animals, broken suitcases, a hotel luggage trolley, scraps of carpet and the obvious remnants of a fire — recent fires, which present a public danger, the impetus for this sweep.
“The housing crisis is killing people,” Cook continued. “John Tory’s failure to raise property taxes so he could have had five or six billion the last number of years to build housing — that’s the issue. Please focus on that.”
The wide-angle picture is far broader than that, though, and it should be. Because public spaces are shared spaces and the city quite rightly doesn’t want to descend into a morass of encampments and inner city shantytowns.
“What are people supposed to do except find places of relative safety?” countered Yogi Acharya, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, who was also present. “Even those places, the mayor and his administration are kicking people out from. And the question is, to what? Frankly, the mayor’s office doesn’t know where a lot of people have gone because people left in anticipation of the sweep.
“It’s just appalling the mayor’s administration has chosen this, instead of focusing city resources on adding shelter beds and building rent geared to income housing that can actually stop people from having to resort to something like this.”
But this isn’t working. And neither, clearly, is the decades-long approach to emergency shelters and respite sites, a crisis fix to a chronic problem that burgeons year after year.
Are there lessons we can learn, for example, from the Housing First concept developed in Finland, the only European country which has managed to reduce homelessness in the past decade? While numerous shelters had been built, authorities there realized that long-term homeless people were still being left out. Without an address, they couldn’t find jobs. Without jobs, they couldn’t afford rent.
The Finns have addressed that vicious circle by rethinking the conundrum. Since 2008, the homeless there have been receiving small apartments and counselling, without any preconditions. Non-governmental organizations buy properties on the market and renovate them into one-and-two bedroom flats, while former emergency shelters have been converted into low-rent apartments. Homeless people become tenants instead. Social workers with offices in those buildings help with financial issues, such as applications for benefits.
Stability and dignity.
Not just a temporary roof over their head. Not just a concrete overpass and the rattle of a subway.
Jessica: “I actually don’t mind the subway noise. When the last subway passes, you know it’s around 2 a.m. And the first one in the morning, it’s 6 a.m.
“We don’t have watches.”