On the cold and very snowy night of Jan. 4, 1996, I was walking up Spadina Avenue with my spouse, Olivia Chow. We were heading home, late as usual, from Metro Hall, where we both worked as city councillors back then. It was almost midnight. Along the way, we passed two homeless men tucked into their sleeping bags in the cramped alcoves created by store doorways set back a couple of feet from the sidewalk. Snow was building up around them.
We checked on each man as we went by, not by disturbing them or waking them, but by looking to see if there were any obvious signs that they were in difficulty. A lot of people in big cities do this all the time. All you usually see is just a fitful sleep – or maybe a deep, motionless sleep. Seeing “motionless” can be a scary experience. Is he asleep? Has she passed out? There's no way to know unless you shake them by the shoulder and ask. But that seems so unfair, so intrusive. The whole picture is wrong. I shouldn't be here asking these questions about this person, who shouldn't be here either.
As we picked our way through the blizzard north toward College Street, under the garish neon calligraphy of Chinatown, Olivia and I talked about what anyone could do if they did see someone in trouble. What number should be called – 911? The police? Somehow that didn't seem like the right answer. There's nothing about a homeless person sleeping in an alcove that is a police matter. How would you contact someone who was trained and who had a specific mandate to help – the Anishnawbe street patrol?
Two city councillors – and we didn't even know how to reach proper help! A fine job we were doing. “Perhaps we should propose to council some sort of well-publicized hotline,” one of us said.
As we reached Cecil Street, one block from home, we swung east around Grossman's Tavern, with its pale green paint and peeling posters advertising bands who had played there since time began. What we didn't see was a man lying alone on the far side of Spadina. He had escaped the snow by stowing away in a Toronto Transit Commission bus shelter, but he had not escaped the plummeting temperature. All night long, the southbound Spadina buses passed the prostrate figure. But they didn't stop for him. Not that night. Not ever again.
The next morning proceeded as usual for a Saturday: the indigestion-producing combination of news and coffee. Newspapers. Radio. Everything was normal until one radio news report stopped us mid-column. The announcer said that a man had frozen to death on Spadina overnight. We knew in an instant that we had been there, just across the street from where he died.
A shiver ran down my spine. Is there anything more awful for a Canadian to imagine than freezing to death? How could this have happened in Toronto? Were there no shelters? Were there no emergency services for the homeless? Wasn't this the richest city in the country? What the hell was going on?
Those questions were on the surface, but the deeper one was very personal. This was one of the people we had passed. His name was Eugene Upper. Although he lay on the other side of the street, I should have seen him, I thought. Like so many citizens with homes, we had walked right by people on the street that night – and other nights – and one of those people might have died. Yet we hadn't called for help. We had assumed, somehow, that others would step in.
Also, I knew that my job on city council required me to put plans and policies in place to prevent deaths on the street. I should have made sure that there were emergency phone numbers, more emergency beds, more emergency services, more housing. Guilt? You bet.
Front-page headlines proclaimed the tragedy. Word also spread like brushfire through the streets. From emergency shelters to all-night doughnut shops, wherever the homeless were hoping for refuge from the cold, there were whispered words: “Did you hear?” The next night, faces of the homeless returning to their shelter beds were more anxious. All of them knew someone who would still be outside in the killer cold. Who would be next?
Navigating their van through that night's snowy lanes, the Anishnawbe street patrol did its best to check the city's many nooks and crannies to find those who remained exposed. Some police and ambulance workers also spent extra time to find and offer help to the TTC-shelter sleepers and the heating-grate denizens. Not that there was much anyone could do. The shelters were full that night, as they had been for several nights running.
The city could no longer provide refuge to everyone in need. Toronto was not alone. In Calgary, on the same night, three out of every 10 people who showed up for emergency shelter were turned away. Across Canada, “No room at the inn” was becoming commonplace.
Bureaucrats quickly rolled out statistics for the night Eugene Upper died, suggesting that there were a few beds in the 4,000-bed system that had not been taken. This posture allowed some commentators on talk shows to suggest that these deaths could not be prevented. After all, they argued, there were beds available and yet Eugene Upper had chosen to stay outside. He had made a conscious decision.
Society had provided an alternative to death, but Eugene had chosen his own destiny. The victim had to be blamed. The homelessness debate had begun.
From Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis. © Jack Layton, 2000, 2008. With permission, Penguin Group (Canada).