‘Family’ is what holds many street people together in Toronto
KJ Mullins-Toronto: Today the pavement was hot. For those who are part of street culture that heat can be brutal. On weekends there are fewer services available for them to get relief. During the week the St. Christopher House is open serving many of those who live in the western side of Toronto’s downtown but with budget cuts their doors are closed during the summer on Saturday. It doesn’t matter if the doors are closed, the steps are often filled with friends who support one another. Today is no different.
The group sitting on the stairs of St. Christopher House took time to discuss what their lives are like, what they need from the city and why they stay on the street. They are a family, not by blood but of the heart, who support one another as they struggle to survive. They deal with addictions and mental health issues together, talking each other through their darkest times and celebrating the good days. There’s Mom and Dad, Cousin Brucie and so many more drifting in and out during the day. They share a big bottle of beer passing it back and forth as they talk about their day. Laying on the ground in front of Mom and Dad is Cousin Brucie, sleeping fretfully. Dad says that earlier this week the staff at St. Christopher’s threw a bag of squirrels on him. It’s not clear if the squirrels were stuffed animals or live. In his sleep it appears Brucie is battling whatever they were.
Mom, who has a job and a home of her own, admits that mental health issues are a big part of street life. She has spent time in hospital. A few years ago the pressures of life and the death of her father grew too hard one day. She said that instead of turning to her family she swallowed a bottle of pills. She understands that attempting suicide is an instant ticket to hospital for a short stay but says the hospital wouldn’t allow her to leave when she wanted to a week later. Her sister helped her get out. She now takes anti-depressants saying that they help.
Mom’s smile is infectious. She says she loves her life, her family of the street. It’s that family that pulls her from her home to sit out on the steps drinking beer. She laughed saying she has a drinking problem and that most of her family does as well. Dad shyly smiled just nodding that mental health is a problem that most on the street deal with. The family believes that one of the key needs in Toronto is mental health outreach workers who help at the street level instead of having to be ‘locked up’ in hospital. One agency that the entire family did like was Street Health saying that the street nurse was nice and really did try to help them. Sadly, they added there just isn’t enough street nurses out there to cover the city’s needs.
I asked the group what their other needs were and the quick answer was having a place to live. Mom said that the Streets to Homes program is a great one but there aren’t enough beds for all of those that need them. The staff Mom and Dad said at some of the agencies deter those living on the street to seek help. “They are just mean. Not all of them but enough. They look down on us. What makes them any better than anyone else?,” Mom said, a glint of anger flashing in her eyes. She said that it’s not just city services staff that treat those on the street as less than, every day they deal with people walking by who treat her and her family like dirt. Mom says that a street person’s colour makes a difference too, “I’m black and have some Indian in me,” she grinned adding, “That makes me really evil, you know.” Dad chimed in saying that at some places, nodding towards St. Christopher’s, treat aboriginals the worst. Mom disagreed saying that St. Christopher House treated natives better than anyone else.
We were talking about their views of the cops in Toronto when another family member walked up, his face skinned up and bruised. Dad said that the younger man had been roughed up by the police in the past few days. I asked the man, who appeared to be in his mid 30s, about the incident. He said that he was drinking a beer at the time the police came at him. He said he didn’t want to drop his bottle and the cops said that he was resisting arrest. The end result was evident, the scrapped skin of his cheeks was an angry red, just beginning to heal. This family has no trust when it comes to the men in blue, saying that they would not call the police even when they are in danger. Dad admitted most have records and that does make a difference. “They’d just arrest us, no matter what.” I asked if they knew any good cops, people that they would feel safe with. Dad said he did know one, but the man was dead.
We also talked about when people give those on the street food instead of money. Everyone agreed that they really do appreciate it when someone is helping them out. While money is nice they understand a lot of people don’t want to be giving those on the street money to buy drugs. One of the family laughed saying it was strange though that some will hand over a half pack of cigarettes but say they wouldn’t give money for ‘drugs’. “It’s kind of hypercritical don’t you think?,” smiling at the thought that cigarettes were better than weed. One of the youngest members of the family said that not all money goes to drugs. “I have a dog, a soup kitchen isn’t gonna feed him, you know. I am honest, I tell folks what I want the money for. Sometimes it is for smack but sometimes it is for dog food.”
What everyone in this rag tag family agreed on was what keeps them on the street. It’s the closeness that they feel to each other. They band together through the good times and the bad times. If one has something they share it with the rest. They are a family that loves each other strongly. They just wish they each had a place they could call home.