Last Resort

How a complex neighbourhood made the best of a bad situation during an intense winter.

Winter, 2018–2019 / No. 42
Illustration by Kara Pyle
Kara Pyle

Jeff Sanford, a Toronto-based journalist and friend of this magazine, died on August 2, 2018, at the age of forty-six. The following article originally appeared on the Local, an online magazine examining the health of Toronto’s neighbourhoods. It is reprinted here, in tribute, with the kind permission of the Sanford family and the Local.

I first saw the woman I’ll call Anna early last summer. It was easy to miss her, tucked in under a rigged plastic sheet behind a Parkdale pay phone. She was dressed in random, eclectic layers, and sitting among a pile of suitcases, carts, clothes, and sleeping bags. She spoke in a rolling Caribbean accent, and might have been in her forties, though it was hard to tell.

As the summer went by, Anna’s encampment began to spread and grow. Items came and went mysteriously. She didn’t move from her spot during the day, but somehow, each morning, new items appeared. A lamp arrived one afternoon, a bicycle the next. Eventually, her little mountain of possessions spread over a couple of sidewalk squares. It’s not the kind of thing that would be allowed in most neighbourhoods, but this was Parkdale, where there is always space for the marginal. In a country with the land mass of Canada, it makes sense that there is one square kilometre for those with nothing. The nearest property to Anna was a rental that had been emptied of long-term residents and handed over to Airbnb visitors, so no one seemed to mind her presence. She became just another person living in the neighbourhood.

A couple of years earlier, I had taken a single room in a house just down the street. The loss of a job in the Great Recession, plus some long-simmering personal issues, had knocked me down a rung on the Toronto housing ladder. No longer able to afford a regular apartment, I started living in rooming houses. Quickly, I found that some were worse than others. I was booted out of an illegal building in Kensington Market when inspectors began cracking down in the wake of a fatal fire. In Parkdale, however, I found a space in one of the better rooming houses. The owner took care of things and didn’t live far away, and the fire department stopped by annually to test the alarms. Stereotypically home to ex-cons, the mentally ill, and addicts, this rooming house also attracted a couple of millennials who couldn’t afford Toronto’s housing market. Sure, there were bugs if you weren’t clean, and the halls were painted that institutional lime green, but it was a place to live that wasn’t on the street, and it was a community.

A woman in her sixties, living upstairs, who had fled an abusive relationship in Winnipeg, told me she liked living among other people. She didn’t have to worry she would fall and no one would hear her. There was always someone around to carry her groceries up the stairs. Settling into bed on cold nights, I gave thanks there was a roof over my head. At least I wasn’t living on the sidewalk down the street, like Anna.

In Parkdale, locals recognize one another and are quick to talk—social boundaries become less rigid. Where the typical middle-class Torontonian is distant with strangers and open to friends and family, that dynamic reverses itself somewhat among local Parkdalians. Going about my daily errands, I walked past Anna several times a day, and we soon began talking. It turned out she was perfectly lucid and rational, which surprised me, but maybe shouldn’t have. Over the summer, other locals stopped to talk, bringing her coffee or Tibetan momos from the restaurant across the street. Rummaging around in her junk one day, she pulled out a mess of wires and a rechargeable CD player.

“Hey, can you charge it up?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Are you going to the store?” she asked another day.

“Yeah. What do you want?”

“Salt and vinegar chips.”

Anna was just another resident in the urban village of Parkdale.

Then fall arrived, and it started getting colder. Anna had Olympian strength and resiliency, and seemed to handle any type of weather, from the beating sun of July to pouring rain. As fall turned to winter, she remained in her spot, wrapped in ever-growing layers of clothes and blankets. As the temperature dropped into negative territory, however, I began to worry. Eventually, I asked her if she wanted to go to a shelter—it seemed an obvious choice as the snow began to fall.

“No,” she said. “I’d rather stay outside.”

When I pressed her, she turned the question on me: “Have you ever tried to stay in a shelter?”

I hadn’t. Point taken.

Of course, people living on the street experience scary health outcomes. In 2017, ninety-four homeless people died in Toronto. A 2013 study from the Centre for Urban Health Solutions, at St. Michael’s Hospital, found that the homeless use the emergency room there eight times more often than the population at large. But living in the shelter system can bring a different set of health challenges. Those who have dealt with vulnerable populations know that the problems around homelessness can seem intractable. Addictions, mental illness, and the simple daily stress of living in desperate conditions create tension. Crowding too many people together in a shelter causes new problems. Shelters can be violent. They can host outbreaks of influenza. Your stuff gets stolen. You get bitten by bed bugs.

This winter, the extreme cold sent more people than ever into a shelter system that was already bumping up against capacity. The Toronto Star began reporting on an influenza outbreak at Seaton House, the largest shelter in the city. Many of the older residents staying on the long-term floor were sick. This string of illnesses followed one last November, in which sixty-seven were infected during a strep outbreak that lasted nineteen months. With the shelters running at more than ninety per cent occupancy, viruses spread easily through the population. Anna’s decision to stay outside, under her pile, didn’t seem so crazy.

But by late December, the lows were hitting negative double digits. Arctic air was pouring down from the north. Shuffling by on the way to the streetcar, I would offer Anna a quick wave. At night, under the blankets, I wondered how she was handling the cold. How long must that night seem to someone sleeping on the street?

By this time, a twenty-four-hour women-only drop-in had been set up around the corner, on Cowan Avenue. Homeless advocates and street nurses had pressured the city into opening up extra shelter space. A police car would often roll up to check on Anna’s condition. Workers from the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, a local social services organization, would also stop by her encampment to check in.

Thankfully, early in January, as yet another wave of frigid weather arrived, Anna finally seemed to have had enough. She relented and went to a shelter. Walking by her camp a week after she had been picked up, however, I was astounded to see her back.

“What are you doing back here?”

“They don’t want to deal with me.”

This time, buried under her huge mound of possessions, Anna seemed more withdrawn. The sense of humour, clearly evident in the summer, was gone. As the extreme cold temperatures stuck around, one day she asked if she could come back to my place. “No,” I said. The superintendent wouldn’t have it. And sneaking her into the shed at the back of the property would have put my own hard-won, beloved space at risk. I shuffled on with a twinge of guilt.

It was around this time a local hero provided an unexpected answer: a wooden cubicle-like box that appeared one morning. About twelve feet long and three feet high, it was painted purple, with a window built into the top. It was a small, single-person shelter — a place to go in the middle of the night during the coldest weather.

It stayed there, between Anna’s encampment and the fence behind her, a tiny purple hut on the side of the street. It wasn’t clear who had built it. Several organizations, when contacted, said they didn’t know. If you walked by in the morning, the little door would be closed, keeping Anna out of the snow and wind. It was tiny, unlicensed, presumably violated some bylaw, and no way for a person to live long-term. But it was a last resort. Again, most neighbourhoods would not allow it. But it worked in Parkdale. At least somebody was doing something while city officials dithered over shelter space.

But as yet another period of intense cold settled in, it became clear that something more substantial was needed. Anna was taken in and her encampment was torn down. The hut disappeared. As the mountain of stuff was levelled, the tragic side of Anna’s story became clearer. There was food marbled through the layers of decaying possessions. The shelter had been there on the coldest nights, but it could only provide a temporary option. Anna needed more help than this.

In the weeks after, as the patch of sidewalk returned to the way it was before Anna had taken up residence, news reports confirmed that one of the men recently taken out of Seaton House had died. Staff who dealt directly with sick residents were advised to wear masks and goggles. And those who stayed outside in the cold, rather than in the shelters, continued to pull off that unrecognized Olympian feat of human endurance. Thank you to whoever built that purple shelter. At least someone was doing something, however small, about the city’s housing crisis in this cold winter of 2018.

Jeff Sanford was a Toronto-based journalist whose work appeared in Canadian Business, National Post Business, Investment Executive, and Wealth Professional. He died in 2018. Last updated winter, 2018–2019.