Curtis B. is 53 years old and formerly homeless. He is also both a tenant and president of the board of directors at Houselink Community Homes, a supportive housing organization in Toronto.
Supportive housing offers tenants struggling with mental health challenges more than merely a roof over their heads, and Curtis believes it needs to supported by government. This is Curtis' story, as recounted to The Huffington Post Canada's Joshua Ostroff, while the two sat in a downtown park on a warm, sunny day. A park not unlike many Curtis had once slept in.
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I come from a small town in Newfoundland. I was there until my mid-30s, when I moved to B.C., and then ended up in Toronto in the late '90s. On the street.
So when did it go wrong? I don't know if it was ever really good. I think I dealt with a lot of mental health issues for a long time, and never dealt with them. Then I got married. I thought that would solve everything, and it didn't solve anything. Because I'm gay. Made things worse, if anything.
I drank a lot then. I was starting to have a lot of other issues, too, with drugs and alcohol. And mental health issues. When we separated, my ex-wife went to Halifax and I went to Vancouver. I guess that's as far apart as we could go and still stay in the same country. When I got there, [things] started to spiral. There are a lot harder drugs in Vancouver that I got quite accustomed to.
I was doing some accounting work and then you start stealing to support your habits. And this just compounds your mental health issues, because you know what you're doing is wrong but yet….
It was a mess. Finally, it was time for me to leave town. I got as far as Toronto, and that's where I ran out of money.
That was my first night sleeping outside. That was a big thing.
It was April, so it wasn't too bad. I think that first night I just kind of walked for hours before I would actually just lie down on a piece of ground and say this is where I'm sleeping tonight.
I wasn't really accustomed to being homeless, and I didn't know other people who were homeless. I was like most of the general public — even though I was one of them, I still had my concerns about [the homeless.] Which is odd. I still talk to people now who are homeless, or marginally housed, and even they look at other homeless people that way.
A woman on her bike riding down the sidewalk in Toronto glances at a homeless man sleeping on Dundas Street near Bay. (Photo: Kat N.L.M./Flickr)
I spent six or seven years living on sidewalks and in parks. So I a learned a little bit about homelessness, and I think that most people try not to see you. I don't mean that they try to avoid you, but that you become invisible to them. I think that's because they don't want to admit that you exist, because that's a failure on their society. It's easier if it's that there's something wrong with [the homeless], they deserve what they get.
I've been walked over, and yet there's also been incredible random acts of kindness by strangers to keep you going. People out there are not horrible people, they are good people, and I think they want people looked after. But the message gets garbled.
I was surprised to find myself in downtown Toronto, I never even really been here before.
I first started at St. James Cathedral. There's a park, so a lot of people sleep there. I slept at City Hall. I managed to go to Ottawa for a while. I figured I'd go somewhere else for a fresh start. It's pretty, it was during the summer. I slept outside there.
That was after a couple years, and that's where I first got hooked up with social services.
It got really bad. No one has sympathy for you. No one at all. "Go get a f*cking job." You have people say that. And I get it. I'm not ready to yell at them and say you're 100 per cent wrong.
There was this one night, and I was living at Somerset Street. It was across from a union office, and there was this old building that I think is probably torn down by now. I found an old box spring and a chair and I rigged a lean-to on the side of this building. I used to crawl in underneath and that was where I slept. I slept there for the longest time.
And this time I had no contact at all with humans. I walked the streets and picked up food. I would go to shopping malls and hang out in food courts and wait for people to leave food on the trays. And that was how I fed myself.
And then one night, where I was, it was just a few streets from Elgin Street. Lots of nightlife. There was a school and a parking lot, so people used to park and then go out to the bars and come back. One night a guy was urinating on the fence that separated us. He said something to me, because he saw me move or something, and I went to say something back to him.
And I just growled at him.
It scared me more than it scared him. There were no words. It was a growl, just like an animal would do when you disturbed him.
Couple of days later, after I walked a lot on that one, I ended up calling social services. I needed to do something about this. This can't go on. And in the meantime, I know the police in B.C. are probably looking for me.
That was a turning point for me, my growl moment.
So I got involved with them. But you know, you can't just go right from the street back into mainstream society, as much as I thought I was going to. Hence supportive housing. It's just too different of a life.
So that went all right, I got some part-time jobs. My social worker there, she was actually pretty good about it. I started to realize the stigma the poor suffer, especially the street poor.
My social worker encouraged me to go see a doctor. But I didn't want to go see a doctor, I didn't want to see anyone. But she finally convinced me, and I set up this appointment.
I remember it was in January, and I walked into the examination room. The nurse took my blood pressure and all that preliminary stuff, and the doctor walked in and said "What can I do for you?"
I said "I'm here for a checkup, it's been a while [since I've been] to see the doctor. I'd just like to get an overall checkup — my social worker thought it would be a good thing to do."
He looked at me, and he said, "I don't do welfare cases."
And I said, "But you're here now, in front of me." And he said "I thought it was an emergency." "But I made this appointment three weeks ago." He said "I don't do welfare cases."
He took his clipboard, put it on the table, and he walked out of the room.
That was perhaps the big shock of my life. That people in authority, those people that we should be able to turn to, could do that to me. Yeah, that was an eye-opener for me.
I had not dealt with people for a long time. This was not a small thing; this was a big step for me to show up and be ready to trust someone. My social worker said, "You know you could try and fight this, but that would take a lot of energy, and it's not going to be pleasant. Perhaps the best thing you could do is put it behind you."
I did, but that's when I realized that work needs to be done here.
After a while, I ended up coming back to Toronto, and again I was on the street. I was on the street. I was on the street. The drugs, that's how it happens.
The drugs are available. You numb yourself. It's not what you want to do. You have lots of conversations with people who are doing the exact same thing. And no one is doing this tomorrow. It's just today. No one in our circles is ever planning on doing this tomorrow.
I think the public needs to understand that. It's not that we want to be here addicted to this crack pipe. Because we know. But it's not a choice. It's not a choice.
So then, after a while I managed to get some housing. It was a rooming house; it was horrible. Those are just nasty.
I was on one floor of a small house; there were five of us on that floor in four little tiny bedrooms. We had a kitchen. I guess it was a kitchen. And you're surrounded by people who are in different parts of their recovery. It's just not healthy.
However, I went from there to an apartment, on my own. I was getting welfare at the time and got this really cheap apartment. And then used it as a crack den. That was how I was able to support myself.
I have a place. You have crack. You need a place to smoke your crack. I need crack. Why don't you come to my place? It's a win-win situation. And I did that until the cops caught up to me, which is probably a good thing, because if [that] lifestyle had continued, probably I wouldn't be here.
I wasn't exactly pleased when the cops knocked on my door that morning, but, in retrospect, it probably was good.
So I was sent back to B.C. to do time for my fraud charges. When I got out of jail in B.C., well, I came back to Toronto because this is all I knew.
There wasn't a lot of money available. So I went to the welfare office in B.C. and said "Can you help me with bus fare?" and no, they didn't want to have anything to do with me. The way I got around it was I said, "OK, I'm going to need to apply for [social assistance], because I guess I'm staying here." And I told her, "Wait 'til this hits the press that you could've gotten rid of me for a bus ticket and you kept me.
She said "just a second," and came back 10 minutes later with my cheque for the bus ticket.
It's all about politics, isn't it?
So I only stayed a few nights in shelters in Vancouver and then I took an ungodly bus trip. The cops had picked me up in January, so I had winter clothes on, and now it was September. It was hot, and my clothes had been put in a garbage bag for nine months. So it must've smelled pleasant.
When I got back here and I ended up at Seaton House. I had no money. I had nothing.
And my probation officer actually was the one who hooked me up with Houselink.
I was diagnosed with mental health issues in 2005. The health clinic in Parkdale, I used to go there. Had a counsellor there for a while. So I saw a doctor there and I was diagnosed with a bunch of stuff at that time. Post-traumatic stress. Anxiety. Everyone's got anxiety, it's the human condition. Some really severe depression and some medical issues as well. My back is full of arthritis, it's a struggle just to move around.
There's a lot of stigma associated with it still. A broken arm, we can relate to. Your bone is broken, it heals. But mental health issues? We have two types of health in this country. We have health and mental health. But we don't refer to the physical health department, so there's "real health" and then there's that stuff.
And it is a little bit embarrassing. I still feel embarrassed, because it means I'm broken. There's something about me that doesn't work right. And we don't know how to fix it. And sometimes it scares me.
You got me on a good day today. But I don't always have good days. Why do I have to deal with this f*cking bullshit?
I remember sitting on the stoop of one of our buildings with a friend and a mother walked past with her child and said "that's where the crazy people live." You know?
I visited that other world once. It was just after I moved to Parkdale and that clinic prescribed me anti-depressants. Took a while before we found some that worked. I remember that it was so bizarre to me. I was walking on Queen Street. I almost know the exact spot where it began and where it ended.
I had this moment where I thought "My life is pretty good. It's not bad, I'm enjoying it. It's a good day." And then, two minutes later, it went.
But that was my little walk in your world, where most days are pretty decent days as opposed to my days, which are not so decent.
It was an odd experience. It was an odd experience.
So I got hooked up with Houselink. This was 2007. I was in the restorative justice program, it's for people like me who have problems with the legal system. Plus, I've got mental health issues, so I was like the poster boy. I was lucky to get in, really, pretty fast actually. Which is good, because it got me out of Seaton House — not a pleasant place. I'm not even sure it's better than the street but in the winter I guess it is.
But I don't want to diss Seaton House because when I was hungry, they fed me and when I didn't have a place to sleep, they gave me a place to sleep. So.
When you get out of jail, your life experience is often worse than it was inside. Because you've got no place to live, you've got no food, you've got no money. Chances are you don't have any ID, because wallets go missing. You don't know what to do. Before, you had structure.
I actually mentioned it to one of the correctional officers, "What are the chances of me exchanging probation for just doing more time?" I had no reason to believe that my life outside of jail would be as good as it was in jail.
And they said no. Maybe I should have thrown something through a window?
But it's true. What you get outside of jail has to be better than what you're leaving, or else you have no reason to want to keep it and build upon it.
How to define supportive housing? It's very easy to put people into bunks. Houselink Community Homes, it's called. It's not about just housing. We can warehouse people very easily. I think the difference is that we help people build homes.
There is an opportunity for employment, that's crucial for a lot of our members. It's not full-time employment, and it's not "you're going to retire in the south of France" employment. But it's good honest work. It's a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It's just good stuff.
And there's a meal program if you're not ready to cook for yourself. If you spend years or decades on the street, you forget how to cook. Or how to shop even. So we have people that can help them do that. Some of my early support workers would bring me food, because they knew I hadn't learned to manage my money, so I would run out of money before the end of the month. There are lots of social opportunities, there are recreational gatherings.
It gives people a sense of community.
What struck me as very important, too, was that it also knows when to pull back and say "You can do this on your own.You don't need us there." You've got to have a good working relationship with your clientele in order to be effective, and know when to pull back and when not to pull back.
You're trying to be a friend to them, but not a friend.
Certain of our members will move back to full-time jobs and remember their Houselink time fondly. Others may even regress and need more support. And some will stay with Houselink, I would be a good example of that, but need less and less support.
When you get treated as an adult and are taken seriously — I don't think you can fully understand how important that is to the human experience unless you do without it for a while. Then you appreciate how that positive affirmation makes you into such a better person.
There's no silver bullet that's going to solve all your problems. There's no one way of doing things that's going to help everyone. So we need to have that human connection, and we need to partner with our members so that they can rebuild their lives. We can't do that for them. They need to do that.
Sometimes I feel that I'm not a good person to be advocating, because I'm still part of the system. But it boggles my mind that in this country, in 2015, we have homeless people. I don't know where to go after that, because it's embarrassing.
I don't think the general public wants homelessness. The general public wants people looked after. All of our great national institutions are all universal. We want everyone cared for. And I think sometimes it's the goddamn politicians that use this as a political football.
We need some brave politicians to say we're spending money for a good reason.
It's a noble reason.
You want it done.
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