I met Ari at the front desk when I asked him to write his name on the sign in sheet. He is 37 years old and from Manitoba. Half Chinese, half Indigenous. Right away he defines himself as a visual artist, also as a piano player.
I hadn’t seen him before and so asked him if he was new. He said yes and no, new this time but had been here before. Why do you come to the drop-in? I asked. “To hang out here, to play dominoes and pool. It’s definitely not boring”. “Are you housed?” was my next question. “Not now” he said. “It’s tough to break out of the out of the cold program”. As we walked, I kept thinking – what if there was something to catch him before he not only gets sucked into the routine of life on the streets, but also before begins to glamourize it?
This time round Ari has been in Toronto just 3 weeks. He was here for 6 months at the start of the year but when he accidentally burned his house down he went back to Manitoba. This time, he said, he has decided to make a go of it in Toronto. He is waiting to get the ID he needs to get housed and get a job. He tells me that he doesn’t really know people in Toronto and that he finds it hard to connect to people. He says that his routine “fills up” most of his day.
What is his routine? The shelter wakes him up at 6:30am, he eats breakfast, and then by 7am is out on the streets. There are a few hours to kill before the next shelter – “the corner” – is open and so he just wanders the streets. He tells me that he doesn’t always know what part of the city he is in. So he always orients himself by finding the CN tower and then walking towards it. He knows that that will take him back to the downtown area. This helps with his independence. Maintaining a sense of autonomy and control is important part of life, can social services provide support that also accounts for and accommodates members desire for choice and independence?
Ari tells me that he is just discovering the services available for street-involved adults. He says he has been finding out as he moves from place to place talking to service workers, and to other folks on the streets. Ari agrees to show me around. We spend 4 hours walking between drop-in centres and shelters. Even though we spend most of the time walking we only really cover a distance of a few blocks – an area bounded by Bathurst in the West, McCaul Street in the east, College in the North and Adelaide in the South.
Clothes, Food and Cash
It’s a beautiful day outside. Blue sky and warm for early December. Our first stop is Evangel Hall.
Ari says he comes to Evangel Hall mostly for the hot breakfasts, lunches and dinners. He says they also have a good offering of clothing. “I got these shoes, these Nike airs from here,” he shows me. He said that at that time he really needed new shoes. He was wearing winter boots and they were hurting his feet. He told me that before he found out they provided clothes he would take clothes he found on the street. He found a hockey bag full of clothes once and went through them. Socks are a big thing for him – he mentioned his delight, a few times, at finding out that shelters give out socks (sometimes). Being on the street, walking hour after hour, the health and welfare of feet are a great concern. What if there was a map Ari could have been given when he first started “doing the drop-ins” that told him not only where to find socks? But offers users reviews about where he can find the best socks, or the socks that he is looking for? Both free socks AND affordable socks he might want to purchase.
I asked Ari where his belongings are. He motions to the one small black shoulder bag he is carrying. “This is all my stuff in the whole wide world”. Inside his bag is just one change of clothes.
Ari is on OW. It was easy to get onto. He applied for emergency welfare last time he was here and they automatically put him on OW. He tells me that he usually spends his $300.00 OW cheque in the first 5 days. The rest of the month he has no cash. How does he spend his money? He really likes eating at restaurants. He says that while the shelters have good food, it’s all home cooked meals and sometimes he just wants to eat the grease and flavour of restaurant food. Asian food is one of his favourites. The Chinese side of his family own a Chinese restaurant in Nova Scotia and he has good memories of eating there when he was a child. But he likes eating all kinds of foods and will spend his OW on pizza, chicken wings, steamed BBQ pork buns. He likes the kiosks up by Dundas where they offer a variety of food choices. I wonder if there could be a way for Ari to both satisfy his cravings for restaurant food AND not blow all his OW money so that most of the month he doesn’t have a cent to his name. In the same way that rent for subsidized housing is now automatically debited from people’s bank accounts, could members like Ari purchase, or have an automatic debited system in place to purchase a set of vouchers to establishments / hobbies that they are interested in? What if each month Ari purchased some restaurant vouchers, thus both allowing him to enjoy and participate in his hobby and interest, while at the same time managing how much of his monthly budget he spends on it? It could be done with bowling, pool, toy shopping and other items.
One of the difficulties Ari has is with banking. He tells me that he owes some money in Manitoba for past misdemeanours, his student loan and lawyer fees. He cashes his cheque immediately when he gets it, rather than depositing it in a bank account. He does this because it’s quicker. He doesn’t have a bank account yet because he needs to show ID. So that’s why they gave him a credit card.
But carrying around $300 dollars cash when you are on the streets is also not great. Bags get stolen all the time, and people are beaten up and or robbed when people discover they have cash. Or worse- people are bullied into “lending” money that they have. So Ari spends his money, not thinking about saving it. He spent his last OW cheque quickly. It was a big one, an accumulation of 3 cheques that he didn’t cash when he was in prison.
He got money from Ontario works to get a bed and other items for his new housing. He bought some clothes and washing detergent and some food. But he couldn’t find furniture or things that he wanted. So he spent most of it, about 300 dollars, during that one night.
While checking facebook he saw an ad for a concert by singer Trina at the Dorchester club and so he went to check it out. He ate lobster on Spadina Ave and then drank patron tequila at the Dorchester club. He was drinking in a members only room. Trina never showed up. He said that maybe she was singing at the other Dorchester club location. But it was fun he said. He was on his own mostly, but at the end of his night, around 3am, he was getting food at the burger king when he ran into a guy who he says was the actor in Grumpy Old Men. They talked for a while. Ari says he really liked the guy’s humour.
People and Activities that Influence
After Evangel Hall we walked up to St. Felix, sometimes known as ‘the sisters’ because it used to be a convent run by nuns. Ari said he likes St. Felix because the food is good. They also have an outside patio which he really likes. He says he has met some really nice people there.
Ari was born in 1977 in a small town near Winnipeg. His parents separated when he was age 1 or 2. His mother, Chinese, is a teacher. He grew up mostly with his mother and his older sister. He would visit his father, Ojibway, on the reserve on weekends. He liked visiting his father. His father is one of his biggest influences. He describes his father as very strong. He doesn’t say much about Ari being on the street. He doesn’t talk much about hard things. But when there is something good – “he explodes with joy”. Ari describes his father’s laughter and joy and how it resonates widely. He tells me that his dad is a residential school survivor. He received a compensation package for it a few years ago. After the residential school he joined the navy and served in Bermuda. Following this he worked at the local grain mill. He became the first Indigenous foreman. Ari seems very proud of his father’s history. Ari talks to his father when he can. It’s hard because his father doesn’t have a phone right now. Ari tells me that just yesterday he wanted to talk to his father so bad, he wanted to ask his father to send him money so that he could move back to Winnipeg. “There’s nothing that my dad wouldn’t do for me” he tells me. He said he was feeling better now – going to the Sharing circle, and seeing that there was a community he could be part of made him feel a lot better. He now suddenly feels like there is a bit more hope for his move to Toronto.
This is his second move to Toronto. The first one was last spring. He was just here a few months. He found housing in Scarborough. He was pretty bored in Scarborough and spent hours and hours at the local laundry mat. He became good friends with the laundry mat’s owner, a Jamaican guy, and they would talk for hours. “We talked about politics, religion, racism.” Sometimes the owner would invite him out with his wife to eat. Sometimes Ari went with the owner and worked on other jobs, like gardening. It sounds like they joked a lot and enjoyed each other’s company. On his own Ari set up an informal network, which has become very meaningful to him. Not everyone is able, like Ari, to set this up, is there an intervention that we could provide for people like Ari to help them establish themselves in their new communities?
At that time Ari had an iphone and spent time making 60 second videos that he posted on Facebook. One night he set pieces of paper on fire to film them. He went outside for a cigarette and forgot about the paper. The entire place burned down. He returned to Winnipeg. He hasn’t visited his Jamaican friend since his recent return to Toronto, and feels guilty about that.
After St. Stephens, known as ‘the corner’. It is the centre where Ari spends most of his time. He says that he uses their laundry and computers, that the caseworkers are very helpful – they will help him find a house once he gets his next OW cheque. He also uses their phones a lot.
Phone communication is pretty central to people living on the street, yet many don’t own their own phones. Ari’s only restriction for our walking around in the afternoon was that he needed to phone Na-me-res to see about a bed for the night. Apparently, there used to be a community resource that offered a phone-in voice mail service for street-involved adults. $10.00 a month bought a private voice mail that could be accessed from any dial up phone. We should implement that again. “that would be a good idea” he says.
He has a half brother on his father’s side, and a half sister on his mother’s side. His sister has a few kids. Mother is now 69 and spends all her energy chauffeuring. His brother is in jail.
He remembers his childhood as mostly going to school. His mother was a single mom and worked a lot and there wasn’t much time for other things. He said they moved around a lot. His mother chose only to rent and so every year or so they jumped to another neighbourhood. All this in a small town. He remembers studying a lot and then special occasions. He talked fondly about trips to Nova Scotia where his mother had relatives. He learned to ski downhill without sticks in just one day.
Ari finished high school at age 16. He skipped a grade. At age 17 he moved to Winnipeg. He knew a lot of people in Winnipeg. He got a job washing dishes at a pizzeria. One of the reasons he quit was because he realised that he wasn’t good at making pizzas “my pizzas sucked”.
Not long after he quit a friend of his told him that he had genital crabs. Ari was worried, the friend had slept in his bed and lounged on his sofas. So he decided to go get tested. The doctor diagnosed him with a mental disorder. Ari didn’t go into great detail but said that he was committed to an institution. It was supposed to be for 2 weeks for testing, but ended up being 2 years. Ari says this was a brutal time. They diagnosed him with chronic schizophrenia. They gave him drugs that made him feel really bad. It was during this time that he realised that if he wanted to do anything with his life he needed to go to university.
Ari took a university upgrade course – calculus and chemistry. He was back at a high school doing this. He said that he was a star volleyball player but couldn’t play on the school’s team because he too old, he was already 20 at the time playing with 15 year olds. He started his undergraduate degree at age 21. He didn’t know what to take and settled on Environmental Science. It took him a long time and he only finished his degree at age 32. He had been taking courses 3 hours a week. Tutoring on the side. He also left school 3 times. Spent time in jail for armed robbery and dangerous driving. At that time he was living in an awful house and was fed up with the world.
The other thing that happened is that at age 30 his daughter was born. Because the mother of the baby already had had children removed, this daughter was removed automatically. They fought to get custody over her and they won. But the day, the very day that they received notice that she got custody Ari saw that the baby’s mother was abusing her. They got into a huge fight. Ari didn’t want anyone treating his baby daughter like that. Someone called the police and the child was eventually removed. She is 7 years old now. He doesn’t know where she is. Somewhere on the reserve (it’s a big place). He could work with Native child family services in Toronto to find her, and depending on the wishes for child services in Manitoba he could arrange a phone call. He thinks about this everyday. Needs a phone , place to stay and maybe child native services will work with him. It’s a big If. But maybe. It’s something I want.
He tells me that he is now in Toronto because he is on probation and is wanted in Manitoba. He had a fight with his most recent girlfriend. They were high on coke. His girlfriend freaked out and was talking suicide. Ari tried to subdue her and the girlfriend got violent. She was punching herself and attacked him with a hammer. Ari was arrested by the police and charged with 2 counts of assault with a blunt weapon. This because when she was punching him he had grabbed a spoon and was using it to threaten her. Ari tells me that he didn’t touch her. But there is zero tolerance in Manitoba. He got 18 months probation. He said that one condition of his probation is that every 2 weeks he would have to receive an antipsychotic injection. He doesn’t want the injection. I asked him what he thinks of his diagnosis and he laughs “no fucking way”. “That’s why I’m here” he says. “Freedom is strange”.