"These men ... just want to belong"
Each morning, at an all too early hour, Toronto’s homeless shelters toss their denizens onto the city’s mean streets, rain, snow or shine.
The City of Toronto estimated last year that there were almost 9,000 homeless people, a dramatic increase over the past decade. Statistics also suggest that those more than 50 years of age — the majority of them men — make up about 29 per cent of the total, the fastest growing group.
There is a place in the heart of downtown where the city’s homeless population is largely clustered — a place to go, really — for men over 50 that has been operating quietly and without fanfare for decades.
Appropriately called Haven Toronto, it sees about 400 clients daily, every day of the year.
“The streets for everyone is difficult and can be very precarious and violent.
But you are very much a target if you’re an older person. If you’re homeless, you carry everything with you and that makes you a very, very easy target to be robbed or assaulted. We hear about that daily here,” executive director Lauro Monteiro said. “Often I tell people in the community, if we weren’t here, where do you think these folks would go?”
Haven Toronto offers a range of services that go above and beyond its status as a drop-in centre, including $1 daily meals (if you can afford it, 30 per cent of clients can’t), access to showers, laundry machines, a clothing bank, television and internet access, a recreation program, a library and comfortable chairs.
Two full-time counsellors also help clients navigate the intricacies of government bureaucracy and ferret out urgently needed livable housing in a neighbourhood where rents are sky high and condos are sprouting up with startling regularity.
Monteiro noted with pride that Haven workers have found permanent housing for 22 regulars so far this year, adding that staff also intervene on behalf of clients dealing with landlords or troublesome fellow tenants.
If you’re a homeless man getting up there in years, chances are you’re contending with serious health issues, possibly even terminal ones. You may not have a family doctor or even an OHIP card.
The centre has a full-time nurse — funded through a private donation — and a family doctor who volunteers one day a week. A palliative care team comes in weekly to meet with the five clients who are facing terminal illness.
But mostly what the drop-in centre offers is fellowship and a sense of community to a population battered by a lifetime of adversity and often leery of strangers.
“One thing that caught me off guard when I first started here was the number of people who come here just for the conversation. A lot of people just don’t have anybody,” staff member Rui Martins said.
Social isolation is a major and largely unrecognized issue for homeless people, Monteiro added.
“(Loneliness) is a very, very significant part of being homeless. You’re cut off from the communities that you were once part of. Most of the men that we see are disenfranchised from families for a whole host of reasons. So you become very lonely and very isolated from the things that you may have known most of your life,” Monteiro said.
“We all want to belong to something, whether it’s a family or a social network. These men are no different, they just want to belong to something. So having a community that they can call their own, where they go, where they see people, where they can connect with people ... it’s hugely powerful,” he added.
Clients also get occasional access to passes to museums, city events and movie tickets, Monteiro said.
“We had a guy here just recently who went to the movies for the first time in 20 years. He couldn’t afford it, he still can’t afford it. It gives (clients) a sense of belonging, it makes them feel that somebody cares,” he said.
Irish native Barry Tierney, who has been the centre’s fulltime nurse for the past year, said it has taken time to build rapport with clients he calls “the lads.” There’s a big demand for blood pressure and blood sugar level testing for the men, who have alarmingly high rates of serious and often undiagnosed health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Many clients, he added, have serious mental-health and addiction issues.
Referrals to other health professionals as well as diagnostic tests such as x-rays and ultrasounds are also available. Monteiro noted the centre’s modest health-care resources take some pressure off the emergency room at nearby St. Michael’s Hospital.
“Every day is different, there’s never a dull day here,” said Tierney, who formerly worked at a methadone treatment clinic in Dublin.
Haven Toronto — originally called the Good Neighbours Club — was founded in 1933 by poverty activist and former Toronto councillor May Birchard along with a similar facility in Winnipeg. It’s been at its current location at the corner of Jarvis and Shuter streets since 1966.
The centre gets most of its funding from the provincial government as well as the City of Toronto. It’s also receives funding from the United Way of Greater Toronto and is one of 50 select charities that receive funding from the office of Ontario’s Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who made her first official visit to the centre Dec. 6. Haven also receives some funding from private donors, corporations and foundations.
Mike Flynn, 59, credits the centre with saving his life when, shortly after he starting going there regularly, Tierney persuaded Flynn that his coughing fit required urgent medical care.
“It was Barry that talked me into going to the hospital because I’m stubborn,” Flynn said.
After being treated for pneumonia, Flynn was subsequently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. He’s found housing because of his dire condition but continues to volunteer as the centre’s librarian and helps run its monthly book club.
Haven has been a godsend, Flynn noted, not the least of which is the connections he and other clients have made.
“People have made friendships. Because of the nature of the guys here, they’re cautious. But when they shoot a couple of games of pool, a couple of games of Euchre or they might shoot the s--- out in the courtyard, they develop a degree of trust,” Flynn said.
Joe White uses the city’s shelter system, although he has “lived rough” for many years, including in a cubbyhole in Chinatown for five years.
“The winter changes everything,” White noted grimly.
At city shelters, “you’re up at 6 a.m., out the door by 7 a.m., right? So where do you go? It’s good place to come and go. You can grab a snooze, read the paper, go online, play some pool. You can have a hot shower or get your laundry done. It makes all the difference,” White said.
One service the centre also offers is the final one for clients: helping to arrange a proper service and burial in concert with the city and a “wonderful” local funeral home.
“Just because you are homeless shouldn’t mean that you can’t have a dignified end of life. We have absolutely no funding ... we do that just because that’s the right thing to do,” Monteiro said.
“Year after year, I have seen family members tell us they appreciate the fact that they now know that their loved one was part of a community and there was a place where they were looked after and there was somebody who cared about them,” he added.
The addition of a supersized mural covering the front of the building — paid for by a $25,000 city grant and painted by street artists — has given the drop-in centre some unexpected attention in recent years, depicting the faces of the community, including a doctor, a veteran as well as homeless men.
“We get a lot of comments, a lot of people know us from that mural. We often have people who stand across the street and take pictures. If it illuminates to the folks outside of our four walls that there are older people here struggling ... we’re happy,” Monteiro said.
“It’s humble but it’s the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done in 40 years of working. I come into work everyday knowing something good is going to happen,” he added.
"These men ... just want to belong to something"
By Bruce Demara