Meet Toronto's hidden millennial homeless

This 28-year-old has been intermittently homeless for six years, but not in a way you're used to seeing.

Living on 'zero dollars a month' in Toronto

This 28-year-old, who requested CBC Toronto not name him, said he is among "hidden homeless." (Oliver Walters/CBC)

The clean-cut, 28-year-old rolls his clear blue eyes and laughs at the suggestion that living in Toronto takes a minimum salary of $80,000 — a suggestion he recently read in an online forum.

"I've lived for months on zero dollars in Toronto," he says.

For six years, this man has been intermittently homeless — but not in a way you're used to seeing.

Right now he has a part-time job. When he has money the first thing he buys is a gym membership so he can shower and shave. He visits drop-ins when he's hungry and rides the TTC when he needs to take a nap.

"Everyone always asks you where you live," this homeless 28-year-old man told CBC Toronto. "Being homeless, it's an awkward question." (Oliver Walters/CBC)

It's a system he developed "to make up for the fact that I'm technically homeless," he says. But it's hard to talk about and he asked CBC Toronto not to share his name.

I'm not rich, so I'm homeless."- 28-year-old homeless man

"It's a practical decision," he says. 
"I'm not rich, so I'm homeless." 

Everything he owns is in a small, clean, beige backpack.

He refuses to call his homelessness a choice or an experiment. Instead, he calls it "a prioritization of personal integrity and [doing] what I think is right."

'I completely burned myself out'

In the past he had "a bunch of jobs that I took [where] I was lying to people to sell things, selling shit products at high prices and telling blatant lies to people."

He couldn't do it anymore, he says.

Originally from a small town in British Columbia, he says he's since lived in various cities across Canada. At 18, he says he had a steady job in Regina as a graphic designer and rented an apartment there.

But "I completely burned myself out," he says. "After that, my life took a turn."

Without a steady income and fixed address he began crashing with friends until he no longer wanted "to impose."

He came to Toronto about five years ago. He liked "the action, the concerts, the bars," and found it was a place where he could blend in and keep his secret ... until now.

"I think it's a conversation that needs to be had. I think, in general, people would be pretty understanding if you say, 'I'm going through a hard time. I'm homeless.'"

But he worries about the stigma, especially when it comes to actually telling friends or employers. 

"They'll think I'm lazy. They'll think I'm a drug addict."

Recently he got work at a restaurant in Roncesvalles, hoping to save enough money so he's off the streets for the winter, banking on having found shared accommodations in the past for about $650.

"I don't know why everyone always asks you where you live," he says, laughing. "Being homeless, it's an awkward question."

Donahue talks to Stephanie Matteis about how he and others go to the Lillian H. Smith library to sleep, read and keep warm. (Chris Gargus)

For James Donahue being homeless is "like quick sand."

The 30-year-old was keeping warm in the Lillian H. Smith library on College Street where many bedraggled men with belongings in bags gather at the tables to read or sleep.

Donahue is clean-shaven, wears layers of clean clothes and black dress shoes. He says he's "embarrassed" so he works hard to hide his homelessness.

I put a lot of effort into putting on the mask. And the mask is I don't want anybody to know what's going on.- James Donahue

"I put a lot of effort into putting on the mask. And the mask is I don't want anybody to know what's going on."

He hopes friends he met in Covenant House will let him stay on their couch but "they're getting fed up with it because it's like, 'We're doing fine. What's wrong with you?' They're getting sick and tired of it."

James Donahue says he couldn't keep a job and found himself with no fixed address. He says he's "embarrassed" so he works hard to hide his homelessness. (Chris Gargus)

Asking him to pinpoint how his homelessness started, he's at a loss.

He says he's battled substance abuse since his teens and left home in Vancouver when he was 19 for a clean start in Toronto. When he hit some rough patches, he couldn't keep a job and found himself with no fixed address.

While Donahue and the transient 28-year-old face very different circumstances, they are not alone.

2.3M Canadians homeless at some point in their lives

A recent government study on hidden homelessness found about eight per cent of Canadians — or 2.3 million people — stayed with friends or relatives at some point in their lives when they had nowhere else to go.

Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, wants more study about the hidden homeless, calling them a very different population compared to the 450,000 who have stayed in emergency shelters.

Gaetz, who also teaches at York University, says he's seen homeless students, "who will shower at the gym, get some food here and there [and] sleep on the couches in the university at night."

The professor says they blend in because students are known for pulling all-nighters and "the university is pretty tolerant."

The hidden homeless population starts with couch-surfing as a teen when they felt they couldn't go home, according to the federal study. That starts a cycle of youth homelessness, as teens feel they can't return home without confronting the issues that drove them out, Gaetz says.

Intervention becomes critical at that point, he says, suggesting that having a third party help teens and their caregivers through difficult times would keep the homeless cycle from starting.

The problem in North America is that we've more or less ignored prevention.- Stephen Gaetz, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

"The problem in North America is that we've more or less ignored prevention," Gaetz says.

There isn't a centralized system where people can reach out for that type of help. Though Gaetz says Calgary has a model and so does the Niagara region, which has a program called Youth Reconnect, other countries have national models to help prevent homelessness.

The problem is that once the homeless cycle gets started, it's almost impossible for young people like Donohue to get out without intervention. 

"Once you're in the shelter system — and I have been since I was 15 — that constant state of chaos ... that's normal."

With files from Nicole Brockbank