Street dwellers PROTEST outside Canada Summit on Homelessness

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 28 Mar 1999 11:37:39 -0800 (PST)


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FWD  Toronto Star - March 26, 1999

     SPECIAL REPORT:  NATIONAL SUMMIT ON HOMELESSNESS

     Street dwellers share stories of hardship

     Austin Miller, 43, was a marketing manager for 18 years before his
     two-year stint on the streets. He now lives in a crack house.

     `I am just one welfare cheque away from being back on streets'

     By Maureen Murray - Toronto Star Diversity Reporter

 Austin Miller quickly descended from the comfort of his middle-class
existence and ended up homeless for nearly two years.

 For the past seven months, Miller, 43, has called a room in a downtown
Toronto crack house his home.

 ``It's not what I'd like, but it's all I can afford. It does beat living
in a hostel or sleeping on a park bench or a sewer grate,'' Miller said
yesterday outside Toronto City Hall, as a national symposium on
homelessness took place inside.

Miller was a marketing manager for 18 years before a marriage break-up and
a battle with colon cancer and heart trouble began his downward spiral. ``I
am just one welfare cheque away from being back on the streets again.''

Miller said he is cynical about whether the two-day conference, which
brings together politicians, social-service agencies and anti-poverty
activists, will result in any tangible changes for those living on
Toronto's streets.

``It's hard for silver-spooned bureaucrats to understand the plight of the
homeless without being homeless themselves,'' he said, clutching a
cardboard sign that called for ``More Housing, More Money and Real
Solutions.''

 ``It's time we cut out the malarkey with all the symposiums, the
commissions, the committees and take action,'' he said. ``Homelessness is
turning from a national disaster to a national disgrace. Enough study.''

 From where he sits, the solutions seem pretty clear: ``Bring back
affordable housing. Bring back rent control. Increase welfare rates.''

 Miller receives $520 a month in social assistance and $350 of it goes to
pay rent. ``What kind of place can I afford on that? A room in a crack
house.''

About 150 homeless people, community activists and a sprinkling of
politicians joined Miller at Nathan Phillips Square during the lunch hour
yesterday to speak out against homelessness. Beric German, a spokesperson
for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which organized the outdoor
event, said it was necessary to give homeless people an opportunity to be
heard.

 ``There haven't been many homeless people inside,'' German told the crowd.
Some who tried to get into the symposium got a hard time from security
guards, he said.

 Various speakers, some speaking from first-hand experience, addressed the
crowd.

Jeff Riley, 16, who described himself as a street kid, said he was tired of
people looking down on him and telling him he should just find a job. ``If
one of you guys would let me sleep at your house for about a month, I'd
have a (social insurance) number and I'd get a job,'' Riley told the crowd
before walking away in frustration, his rolled-up sleeping bag tucked under
his arm.

``People look at me like I'm trash. I want to be looked at like a person,
not unwanted garbage,'' Riley said in a later interview.

Riley is originally from Nova Scotia and has been living on Toronto's
streets since he was 14, when he came here with his father, he said. He
chose the streets over life with his father, who he says was abusive, an
alcoholic and a drug addict. ``After two years on the streets, I'm still
afraid.''

What he really wants, he said, is to go back to Nova Scotia or to find a
place to live here. He shies away from going to shelters because he is
uncomfortable staying at a place with a ``whole bunch'' of people he
doesn't know, he said.

Critics often like to think teenagers are on the streets seeking adventure,
Riley said, but added that he and most of his peers have fled abusive
parents. Homelessness among young people can't be solved without tackling
the social ills they're fleeing, he said.

 Speaker after speaker criticized the various levels of government for not
doing enough to resolve homelessness. Mayor Mel Lastman's task force on the
issue and Anne Golden's subsequent report were not spared harsh words.

 ``The 21.6 per cent cut in welfare (by the provincial government) doubled
the number of homeless people on the street in Toronto,'' said Steve
Watson, spokesperson for the Canadian Auto Workers Union. ``She (Golden)
has not acknowledged this in her report.''

 It is time for those interested in dealing with homelessness to also look
at cuts to welfare, unemployment insurance and social housing, he said.

 Federal Finance Minister Paul Martin was criticized for ignoring
recommendations in a housing report he authored in 1989, while he was the
Opposition housing critic.

 ``This is the only housing study written by a person (now) able to
implement it,'' said University of Toronto professor and housing expert
David Hulchanski.

 Miller thinks the problem is that the majority of middle-class Canadians
do not vigorously support solving the homelessness problem because they
don't see it as directly affecting them.

 ``Take a look at me,'' he said, recalling that at one time, he owned a
comfortable four-bedroom house in Mississauga. ``Many people are only one
paycheque away from poverty and the streets.''

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