Toronto

'We're everywhere now': Meet the homeless in Canada's largest city

Every night in Toronto around 8,000 people sleep in shelters — twice as many as five years ago. 'It's people who have fallen on hard times, got divorced, lost their jobs, got a work injury,' says one homeless man.

'It's people who have fallen on hard times, got divorced, lost their jobs, got a work injury'

Frenchie, 28, lives under a bridge near downtown Toronto. He says he isn't worried about surviving the winter - it's the rats that come around at night that scare him. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

In a given year, 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness.

That's a population the size of a small city. 

In Toronto, activists say there have never been so many people without a place to call their own. They use the word "epidemic."

According to the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network, a group that tracks deaths among the homeless, 17 have died in Toronto since the beginning of October 2019.

The thing is, when people talk about the homeless it's often in terms of numbers and statistics like the ones above — but the issue really hits home when you meet the people. 

The National's Leonardo Palleja and Nick Purdon spent time with a number of homeless people in Toronto. Here are some of their stories:

Frenchie

Frenchie is 28 years old and has been living under this bridge in Toronto for the past six months. He says the people he meets 'above ground' judge him because he's homeless. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

For six months, Frenchie (he says that's what his friends call him) has slept in a tent under a bridge in Toronto — a few blocks from some of the most expensive houses in the country.  

Frenchie says he lost his restaurant job and had some bad luck, and after that things went downhill. 

"It's a difficult life, but we survive. Every day we survive," he says.

There are about 15 other people living in the makeshift camp under the bridge, a small community where he says he's treated well. Above ground, on the street, he says people judge him.

We have a different life, but we are still human — we are not alien, we are still people.- Frenchie

"I just want to say to people, we are not that bad," he says. "We have a different life, but we are still human — we are not alien, we are still people."

It's hard to know exactly how many Canadians sleep outside on a given night, but the best estimate is around 35,000 individuals.

Frenchie says he doesn't worry that much about winter — he has plenty of tarps and blankets, and sometimes he lights a small fire in his tent to keep warm. 

Hear more from Frenchie:

'Frenchie' shows CBC reporter Nick Purdon where he lives in a tent under a bridge in Toronto. 0:39

Paul

At 43, Paul has been homeless for six years — ever since he lost his job framing houses in Toronto.

"I had a work injury and I also suffer from depression," he explains. 

What's remarkable about Paul is that if you passed him on the street, you probably wouldn't realize he's homeless. He doesn't fit the stereotypical image of an entrenched homeless person many people imagine when they read statistics about the problem in Canada. 

Like the one that says 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year.

"It's not just the bums you see on the streets — we're everywhere now," Paul says. 

"The vast majority don't look like they're homeless. It's people who have fallen on hard times, got divorced, lost their jobs, got a work injury," he says. 

Paul has been homeless for six years, since suffering a work injury. 'We’re a rich country, there’s no reason for this to be happening,' he says. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Paul says he's lucky to have a bed at one of the city's shelters while he's on a waiting list for subsidized housing. 

A list that is 11 years long.

"We're a rich country, there's no reason for this to be happening," he says.

Paul says not having a place to call his own takes a tremendous toll on his mind. 

"You have no hopes and dreams left anymore. You have no nothing," he says. "People think you are nothing, and so you end up thinking you are nothing.

"You just eventually end up fading, fading away slowly." 

Hear more from Paul:

Paul, 43, has been homeless for six years - ever since he hurt his back and lost his job. 0:11

Kevin Durance

Kevin Durance has become an unlikely activist. 

He fidgets on stage as he addresses a protest in front of Toronto city hall. 

"I know how hard I have to work just to survive," he tells the crowd. 

Kevin Durance, who has been living in a shelter for six years, has become a homelessness activist. He's seen here speaking at a rally in front of Toronto City Hall in December. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Durance has lived in a Toronto homeless shelter for the past six years. He knows how bad the situation is on the street, and he wants the city to declare a state of emergency and open more beds to the homeless. 

"It boils down to real humanity," he says. "We've got to start caring about people."

Activists insist high rent prices in Toronto make it hard for people who earn minimum wage or collect social assistance to afford a place to live. 

The number of people sleeping in shelters in Toronto has doubled in the past five years and now hovers somewhere around 8,000.

Still, Kevin's wish is a small one — for people to see him and not look away when they pass him on the street. 

"They don't see me, they see that stigma. [They think] I'm violent, I'm strange, I'm different — I'm just simple. I need someone to help me."

Hear more from Kevin:

Kevin Durance, who has been living in a shelter in Toronto for six years, is an activist who wants the city of Toronto to create more shelter beds. 0:31

Scott

Scott used to run a small hotel in downtown Toronto. 

The day that closed, he lost both his job and his place to live.

He never thought he'd find himself living in a shelter.

"I always had money, I always had a job," he says. "It's getting to the point where I'm getting too old to get a job and my physical features aren't what they used to be. Who wants to hire somebody with no teeth to go serve tables?"

Scott lives in the St. Simon's Shelter in Toronto. He has a bunk and a metal chest to store his clothes. Homeless shelters were supposed to be temporary solutions, but now people like Scott live in them for years. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Scott hasn't told his friends or family that he's staying in a shelter, saying "I don't want pity."

He says all he wants is to get back to work full-time and have a place of his own.

"Just get back up there where I used to be, where I get up in the morning and I've got a place to go."

Hear more from Scott: 

Scott used to run a small hotel in downtown Toronto, and when it closed he lost both his job and his place to live. 0:17

WATCH | The National's feature and learn from those living it what it's like to be homeless in Toronto:

Four men talk about being homeless in one of Canada's richest cities. 8:29

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