Canada Summit On Homelessness: Will this hope I feel be

Tom Boland (
Thu, 1 Apr 1999 21:44:44 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  NOW Magazine  April 1-7, 1999


     n e w s f r o n t


     At least this talkfest on
     homelessness gave a sense of


People attending the National Summit On
Homelessness had the good grace to be
embarrassed at the exclusion of the homeless from
most of the official proceedings, and some city
staffers expressed their angst at the sight of police
grappling with homeless activists the day before it

At the people's summit, held outside city hall at
lunchtime, I recognize the black man with rasta
braids I'd seen on the news the day before,
surrounded by police officers and looking very

I ask him if he got hurt. His name is Samuel
Tassaew, he's in his early 40s and spent time on
the streets last year. He's now in a bachelorette that
costs him $400 a month, from a welfare housing
allowance of $325. He shrugs off the cops. They'd
just told him he had to leave, and he did.

An older guy tells me how terrible it is to be in
Seaton House, how sick people are. "There's a guy
in the bed beside me -- he won't get up. He says,
'I'm just here to die.'"

A young man, barely out of his teens, asks me for
a light, confiding that he's been able to panhandle
enough for cigarettes, a bottle of wine and batteries
for his radio.


Alcoholic sea

His eyes are bleary, swimming in a sea of alcohol.
He blusters a bit about the security, saying he'll
confront anyone who hassles him.

I suggest he avoid the guys with the guns, and he
laughs. He admits he shouldn't stand at the mike,
where some speakers are exhorting the crowd,
since he's a bit, well, not to put too fine a point on
it, loaded.

An odd-looking fellow points across the street at
old city hall, calling it his housing, he's there so
much. He got so many tickets for squeegee activity
that they don't know quite what to do with him.

"What will they do? Lock me up, feed me, give me
a bed? Bring it on," he cackles.

Most of the homeless are out of the loop, unaware
of this national effort. Others are too frightened by
what they've already experienced in life to take a
chance on political activism.


It's worrisome that the scent of potential funding
has brought out the agency sharks, those who feel
their track records entitle them to the big bucks,
even if their track records have contributed to the
explosive growth of the homeless population.

For the psychiatric survivor community, there are
mixed feelings about the $45 million pledged by the
province over the next three years.

There are fears that the Schizophrenia Society will
get a chunk of that, to house and cripple their adult
children in medical-model constructs. Then there's
the Supportive Housing Coalition, embroiled in its
own controversy over a demographic survey it
recently sent to residents of its programs.

Residents are asked questions that would make
civil libertarians blanch. Sexual orientation,
diagnosis, whether or not you've done time, how
many days spent in hospital, whether your children
are in the care of Children's Aid.

There are innovative, small, user-friendly programs
-- like the local economic development efforts in the
survivor community -- that have more promise and
deserve more backing than they've previously

It's very clear that no one at the provincial or
federal level is happy with the focus on
homelessness and the need for committed dollars to
deal with the problem. In spite of the political
smiles and handshakes, it's evident that they've
been dragged kicking and screaming to some
accountability for a situation they had a large part in

It was easier to allow the public to foment
grievances against squeegee kids and panhandlers,
and not to challenge the easy judgment that their
lack of housing came as a result of personal choices
and bad decisions.

Now that the seasonal threat of hypothermia and
pneumonia is giving way to the hazards of
sunstroke, TB, skin cancer and dehydration, the
danger of allowing the publicity and energy to die
out looms high.

At the end of the day, I flag a cab, and the driver, a
handsome and tired-looking black guy, turns
around and studies me for a moment, then asks if
he's seen me on television the night before with the

Instead of asking him what he was doing watching
WTN, I say yes.

"I almost called in," he says earnestly, wanting to
have his own findings heard. "I see these people all
the time, sleeping in the streets, Nobody should
give them any money.

"I'm from Africa, I got my education there. It
means nothing in Canada. I have a wife and
children, and I take care of them. These people,
you think they're crazy or sick, but at the end of the
month you see them, they're just fine. They've had
everything, they went to school here, but they just
throw their lives away.

"I have them in my cab all the time. Drive to Money
Mart, drive to the liquor store, to the drug corners.
There was a man, he tells me he has four kids, he's
complaining that his landlord is trying to evict him
for not paying his rent.


Truth explained

"I take him to cash his cheque, and when he gets
back in my cab I say to him, 'Look, take the money
home, give some to your landlord.' He says to me,
'Fuck the landlord.' Just like that, 'Fuck the

We're parked outside my destination, the meter's
off, he's turned around to face me, passionately
explaining his truth. "If you have to give money to
people, give it to those who are struggling to keep
their apartments or rooms, don't give it to those
who live on the streets. They don't give a damn."

He's not a neo-con redneck, he's a guy struggling
every day to feed his family. He can identify with
that struggle. He can't identify with those who, as
he says, just throw their lives away. He is offended
to his very core.

I tell him that I've been very poor, and that there
are things he doesn't see, and because of that can't
understand. Mostly I feel the weight of everything
that can't be explained or felt or understood in a
few minutes of conversation.

But this is the voice of those who will end up
voting for Harris in the next election out of
resentment and certainty that homelessness is just a
huge scam perpetrated by those who value nothing.


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