Lawrence Scanlan is the author of A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Philanthropy, and the writer of The Lion’s Share, a play about income inequality.
For decades, Jamal Saeed was a pro-democracy voice opposing Syria’s al-Assad – and for that, he was punished with 12 harrowing years in the country’s harshest prisons, without formal charge or judicial process. His is a remarkable story, marked by the kind of pain and injustice that is unimaginable to so many people born in Canada. But before his privations, he led an idyllic childhood in the small northwestern village of Kfarieh, and his ancestral home had a feature that resonated with me in Ontario, nearly 10,000 kilometres away: a courtyard, surrounded by an eight-foot-high stone wall, but with a door-sized opening.
“And just inside the courtyard,” Mr. Saeed writes in his memoir, My Road From Damascus, “[my father] also built a private room with an unlocked door. The room has a short-legged table upon which my mother always keeps three clean and neatly folded mattresses and blankets. There’s also a wood-burning stove and fuel. This room is for passersby who can’t find a place to shelter on a cold or rainy night in the mountains.” If the room was occupied in the morning, Mr. Saeed’s mother would offer the travellers a hot breakfast before they continued on their journey.
My grandparents had a farmhouse, near the village of Erinsville, just northwest of Kingston. It had a similar arrangement – a long couch under a roofed, open porch. Farmers walking home in the small hours of a Saturday night, spring through fall, knew they could sleep there, and be welcomed into the Flynn household in the morning.
Both the Saeeds and the Flynns were farmers. They were not poor; they got by. With so little crime in either village, the risk of harm from sheltering strangers was negligible. This may not be the case in many places in Canada today, but in this rich country of ours, are there other ways of ensuring decent shelter – or better yet, decent housing? Why has the will to do so been distressingly absent, and for so long?
As I approach my 74th year, I can attest from experience that there are far more good people than bad people in this world. All my life, I have been the recipient or observer of countless acts of kindness by individual strangers. But what about kindness and compassion on a grander scale – as a matter of public policy and government priority? Think about Finland and its methodical, determined, housing-for-all approach by every level of government; it makes so much sense, in practical, economic and moral terms. Such inclusivity once existed in Canada. But what has happened to it?
On a chilly day in November, I watched a man, as if in a trance, cross Kingston’s Queen Street wearing no shoes and carrying a small lamp. That same month, I was driving west on busy Davenport Road in Toronto and came perilously close to a man walking blithely up the middle of the street. Was this an act of calm defiance, as the look in his eye suggested? Or was it closer to self-harm? Then there was the man I saw last summer on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver: He was shirtless, wild-haired and wild-eyed, and he was using a length of chain to beat the ground with ferocity. He politely paused in his labours to let us pass, and only oh-so-briefly did I make eye contact.
So much has changed in my lifetime. In the mid-1970s, when I was in my mid-20s, I would join friends to hear poetry at the Harbourfront warehouse before retiring for beers to the (now long-gone) Selby Hotel on Sherbourne Street, where Ernest Hemingway once lived and imbibed. Later, on the street, we would encounter “winos” (as we called them) and eccentrics.
One I remember well. He wore a tie around his forehead and would hover over a fire hydrant with eyes closed and a look on his face of great concentration. He believed that hydrants – linked, he said, to energy at the Earth’s core – were the key to controlling the weather. This man likely lived in one of the rooming houses on Carlton Street, which have since been converted to upscale condos; in those days, there were no homeless individuals that I could see. The first food bank appeared in Edmonton in 1981, and many more would soon follow across the country.
I am a baby boomer, born in Canada after the Second World War, and looking back, I see my early years as a time of shared prosperity. I am not alone. In his book, The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1%, Lars Osberg – an economics professor at Dalhousie University and a world authority on income inequality – argues that over the past 40 years, the gap between the rich and the rest in this country has gradually reached toxic levels. Whatever happened, he asks, to the historic bargain that was struck in this country after the war – when “the rich, the middle class and the poor,” he writes, “all shared in economic growth”?
In 1971, the highest-income Canadians had to pay approximately 70 per cent in federal taxes; today, they face taxes of roughly 30 per cent. Corporate tax rates were similarly high, but have steadily dropped ever since. Starting in the early 1980s, social programs were cut and many have never been restored. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid were most affected by these decisions: the marginalized, the racialized, minimum-wage earners, the disabled, minorities, immigrants and refugees. Meanwhile, those at the very upper end took the lion’s share of wealth. In 2021, the top 100 chief executives in Canada earned, on average, $14.3-million a year.
Forty years ago, another domino fell: Canada’s psychiatric facilities began closing down. Insane asylums were bad and community care was good, went the thinking. Then halfway houses, clinics and individual families became overwhelmed by their charges. Thus my encounters on the street, which inflicts its own trauma and fosters new mental illness or makes old psychoses worse. But such encounters also mislead, creating the false impression that homelessness largely reflects individual choice – bad decisions on the part of men and women that led to their addictions and their struggles. The truth is that the vast majority of people who land on the street are put there by cruel circumstance: They can’t make ends meet, their wages are too low, government support is too meagre, and the cost of food, clothing, accommodation and the rest, too great.
What really fuelled homelessness were severe cuts to Canada’s housing program, starting in 1984 and culminating in the cancelling of all federal funding in 1993, downloading responsibilities onto the provinces. Most provinces then passed that on to beleaguered municipal governments.
Michael Shapcott, an authority on housing and homelessness, has called the 1990s “a lost decade for affordable housing funding, policies and programming.” Tack on today’s housing crisis, and you see the result. The city of Toronto has a homeless population of about 10,000 individuals – some of them with grave and unattended illnesses, and many of them Indigenous or racialized.
In her essay in the recently published anthology, Displacement City: Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic, Roxie Danielson – a young street nurse in Toronto – laments that many of her patients have died “as a direct result of homelessness. I never imagined that as a nurse I would be dealing with this level of death; nothing prepared me for this. Living without a home kills. Poverty kills. … It really is social murder.”
Consider these numbers, cited in Displacement City: Over the course of a year, almost a quarter-million Canadians experience homelessness; chronic homelessness cuts an individual’s life span in half. The waiting list for subsidized housing in Toronto is more than 81,000 households long, and the average wait time for a one-bedroom unit is 12 years. The COVID-19 pandemic, the acute shortage of affordable housing, the opioid crisis, and the abject failure of the welfare system to come close to providing life with dignity: All these factors have conspired to deadly effect. A thousand individuals have died on Toronto streets since the Homeless Memorial Network and others began counting and, when possible, naming, the dead. That’s over a 40-year span.
Those living in tents have been criminalized and brutally evicted by baton-wielding police during a plague that for a time closed virtually all public washrooms and showers and made shelters a dangerous option – “this fresh hell,” as Simone E. Schmidt calls it in Displacement City.
Another writer, Zoe Dodd, describes a park where naloxone kits were hung in trees to help deal with all the overdoses by users trying to get through one more night, one more day.
Ms. Dodd, a long-time harm-reduction worker, railed against “the indifference to human life … it’s like a horror movie, really. … Staff are barely hanging in there. … At some point, it breaks you. … None of this is normal.”
And yet “normal” it has become. As renters lose accommodations to real estate investors, the numbers of individuals at the mercy of the street keep growing. Community kitchens and food banks struggle to meet skyrocketing and unprecedented demand; tent encampments appear and disappear in parks and ravines; the sometimes anonymous dead are buried in unmarked graves. As Leonard Cohen sang, 25 years ago: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/Everybody knows.”
Greg Cook, who co-edited Displacement City with Cathy Crowe, has been an outreach worker for 12 years. He argues that the City of Toronto can do more: “They can raise taxes, stop policing the poor, and build more affordable housing. The city can end homelessness and poverty-related deaths. Right now, the city refuses.”
Displacement City ends with an essay by lawyer Leilani Farha on housing as a human right, offering the hope that new federal legislation will eventually make governments accountable to the dispossessed. But she concedes that “the future for those living in homelessness and inadequate housing in Canada is not particularly bright.”
The simple fact is that more of us have to care about the suffering of others for these catastrophic circumstances to change. Where is the groundswell of outrage and anger, the holding of politicians’ feet to the fire?
In the long term, my hope – though it may well be faint hope – lies with this trend: Recompense for past harms is in the air. Current governments are being asked to pay for the sins of their predecessors who inflicted great harm on thousands of Indigenous children, on generations of Black people consigned to slavery, on marginalized communities ignored by policy. Drug manufacturers of opioids have been deemed liable for past damage to drug users; developing countries have agitated for reparations over climate-change carnage caused by richer countries; Big Tobacco was successfully sued for harm done to human lungs. Canadian citizens bludgeoned by poverty and neglect for decades may one day be declared worthy of such compensation, too.
When Jamal Saeed was in prison, he described his home’s layout to a fellow prisoner. When the prisoner asked why there wasn’t a gate in the courtyard wall, Mr. Saeed replied: “This way they don’t have to knock before entering.”
No need to say “please.” A roof over one’s head. A warm, dry, safe bed, every night. Hot breakfast in the morning. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Shouldn’t we do the morally right thing now before we are told we must – and after the pain has already been exacted?