Marlene Bryenton was desperate. Her son was homeless on the streets of Toronto.
Stricken by mental illness, he had lost everything: his comfortable home in Charlottetown, his job, his family. Ms. Bryenton had no idea how he was surviving.
So she enlisted the power of the internet. She started joining Facebook groups for Toronto neighbourhoods and asking whether anyone had seen her son, a rangy six-foot, three-inch former athlete.
Reports about him started coming. He was outside a fast-food joint, talking to himself. He was walking rapidly along a busy city street. He was asleep on the sidewalk. Some people added pictures and videos.
Now a stream of reports crosses her screen every day. Hundreds of perfect strangers have posted observations. “They are my eyes and ears,” says Ms. Bryenton, 73, a retired civil servant turned children’s author.
Even though she lives 1,700 kilometres away, she can follow her son almost in real time. Earlier this month, someone spotted him on the ramp to the 409 Highway near Pearson airport. It was raining and he was running toward oncoming traffic. Ms. Bryenton called the police, but they couldn’t find him.
The next morning someone saw him walking along a suburban street, “quite skinny and dirty,” but “physically moving well.” Ms. Bryenton heaved a sigh of relief.
Every day, she posts an update on his wanderings, sometimes adding a map to show where he has travelled. Her son, 39, is constantly on the move, often walking 20 kilometres a day.
6:30 a.m.: He was at 90 Warren Rd. next to Timothy Eaton Church. He slept there.
8:04 a.m.: Walking south at Bathurst St. and Melgund Rd. by the library.
8:40 a.m.: He was on Bathurst St. at Lennox St. walking south.
10:30 a.m.: He was at Golden Wheat Bakery on College St. at Grace St.
11:30 a.m.: He was seen on College St. W., in front of Ultramar. Went toward Sterling Ave.
12:35 p.m.: He was seen walking north with Tim Hortons coffee on Roncevalles Ave. and Geoffrey St.
3:04 p.m.: He was seen at 2440 Dundas St., outside a grocery store.
5:36 p.m.: He was seen at Eglinton Ave. and Jane St. crossing the intersection westbound.
Evening: A lady spoke to him and said he was kind. He was heading north on Kipling Ave. It started to rain.
Evening: He was seen going west on Dixon Rd., near Kipling Ave.
Evening: He was heading toward the airport on Dixon Rd. near Martin Grove Rd. He was soaked and his pants were pushed up.
Evening: He was seen walking against traffic, running on the ramp on Highway 409.
Her crowdsourced chronicle offers a window into the nomadic and often dangerous lives of people like him. It also highlights the anguish suffered by the families of the thousands of mentally ill people who are roaming the streets of Canadian cities. Many families complain of being shut out by a system that puts too much stress on the autonomy of their loved ones and too little on their welfare.
Ms. Bryenton wants to bring her son home to Prince Edward Island for mental-health treatment. But first, she has to persuade authorities that he poses a serious risk to himself or others.
In July, a justice of the peace agreed to have him “formed,” or detained for treatment under a special application. Police picked him up and brought him to hospital, but he was released 72 hours later after a psychiatrist’s assessment.
The decision infuriated his mother. “I had breast cancer twice,” she says. “I got treatment. He has a mental illness. Yet he is thrown to the streets to fend for himself.”
Parents like her, she says, are left scrambling to pick up the pieces. “We get virtually no support.”
It happened again just recently. Ms. Bryenton petitioned a justice of the peace. Police picked her son up and took him to hospital. This Monday at 1 p.m., after 72 hours had passed, the hospital released him. Ms. Bryenton says no one told her why.
Even though she had provided reams of information about the dangers he faced, including two reports that said he was almost run over, he was right back on the street.
Within minutes, sightings started popping up on her feed. He was at Dundas and Bloor. He was at Jane and Bloor. By 8 in the evening, he was seen 14 kilometres from the hospital. The handsome guy who once wore a suit to work was clad in tattered sneakers and pants with a big hole in them.
Ms. Bryenton sometimes feels like throwing up her hands. Instead, she is fighting back. She has persuaded more than 6,000 people to sign a petition calling for help getting her son home. She has lobbied her local MP and MLA for change in mental-health laws. She has written to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who replied that he was sorry about her “difficult experiences” and was forwarding her complaint to his Health Minister.
Before her son’s illness, Ms. Bryenton says, he was a solid citizen – a star baseball pitcher and bowling champion in his youth, a deacon at his church, a marathon runner. He married, had two kids and became assistant manager at a local bank, well-liked for patiently helping older people manage their accounts.
But five years ago he began suffering from delusions. He spent a month in hospital and went on medications for his symptoms, but complained they made him feel robotic and stopped taking them.
His marriage broke up. He came home to live with his parents for a couple of years, then got a place of his own nearby. Last fall he abruptly left his home province, bouncing from place to place and finally moving to Toronto, where he had once worked.
His mother says he has become suspicious and reclusive. He refuses to visit shelters or soup kitchens. Instead, he simply drifts, walking much of the night and often sleeping on lawns. To feed himself, he stands outside supermarkets asking shoppers to buy him cereal or peanut butter.
He doesn’t use drugs or alcohol and is usually polite and never violent. But the reports and photos on Ms. Bryenton’s feed show a thin, drawn figure, a shadow of the man he was. She fears he won’t survive the coming winter.
“We’re walking on eggshells every day, wondering whether a police officer will call. We’ve got to get him back home,” she says.
Not everyone supports her campaign. Some commenters have said that she risks worsening his mental health by telling his story so publicly. One posted that, regardless of his condition, it is his choice whether to get treatment. Ms. Bryenton should simply “let him be.”
Many advocates strongly oppose involuntary treatment, arguing that detaining mentally-ill individuals is an echo of a time when they were locked up in dank asylums.
Ms. Bryenton is undeterred. She says that until her son gets the help he needs, “this mother is never going to give up.”