Alice emptied her pockets onto the small coffee table in the room – a $10 bill, 2 loonies, and some other coins. “We made 13.85 today” she said to Jack her boyfriend. “We sold a gram of weed and a pack of smokes”. “That’s alright”. He replied.
We first met Alice and Jack at the drop-in centre a few weeks ago. Big smiles and full of energy they agreed to show us around the streets and the Toronto that is theirs.
At the agreed upon time Margaret and I went to find them on the floor of the drop-in. Jack was playing pool and Alice, alone, was sitting at one of the nearby tables. She was playing a slots game on her smartphone and eating rocket candies individually wrapped. She said she had bought a big bag of them at the dollar store and kept handfuls in her bag. She pulled out some other sugared lollies and said “but these one’s I didn’t buy. I just took these. The dollar store is the easiest place to steal from”. Alice is diabetic but doesn’t like needles. She says she eats candy to regulate her sugars. The start of winter, Alice was wearing layers of sweaters, the top one, brown, had pictures of wolves on it.
Alice told us that they were at the drop-in doing laundry. They had been doing laundry for about 3 months, cleaning all her clothes now that they’ve moved apartments. “I have a lot of clothes” she told us. They have been in their new apartment about 1 month. They had to leave their other apartment when Alice’s sometimes boss left on a bender and didn’t pay rent. Both Alice and Jack had been staying / living there for a while, which is how the two of them met. Her boyfriend didn’t know that Alice and Jack were sleeping together.
Alice prefers the other apartment. “Even though my blood has stained one of its walls, it’s where Jack and I first met”. The new apartment is too small, and they have to share a very tiny kitchen with the guy upstairs. Alice explained that they are saving up to pay rent for the top floor apartment, a bigger unit with its own kitchen. Alice explained that Jack has a big ODSP cheque coming in, the monthly cheque as well as some retroactive payment.
“We’re also going to use some of that money from my check to take a holiday” Jack joined in, having finished his game of pool. “I want to take Alice somewhere nice, somewhere on holiday”. We’d like to go to Mexico, but Alice doesn’t have her documents right now, her passport”. In fact, Alice has no identification at the moment. Her health card, passport, social insurance number all having been lost or stolen during their time on the streets. Moreover she hasn’t possessed all 3 identifications at once since she was 18.
They said that for their holiday they would probably go to Niagara Falls. Alice loaded onto her phone a place near the falls that does wax hands for tourists. “We want to get both our hands waxed and have them put a rose in between them”. Jack also has an obsession with Niagara Falls. As he has told us several times, he wants to go over the falls. Not as suicide, he knows he will survive it. But to show his strength. He tells us that Red Bull has said they won’t sponsor him, but if he does go over to let them know in advance and they will send someone to film him. They also have offered him a life-time supply of free red bull. Whenever Jack mentions going over the falls Alice rolls her eyes. “I don’t think he would make it out alive” she says. “The currents will suck him under”.
Jack goes downstairs to get the laundry. A fight breaks out in the hallway. Alice goes to look, comes back and says: “That guy hits like a bitch”
Alice goes back to her phone. “I have to show this to you” she says and loads a YouTube video of Nick Carter Dancing with the Stars. “I love this show” she tells us. “I like to see the stars, I like to see the dancing”.
Throughout our afternoon with Jack and Alice, Alice regularly plays a game of slots on her phone, watches a video, or when at their apartment, pays close attention to the news reports on the TV. She flips through both Toronto news and Hamilton news channels commenting on stories.
Jack comes back upstairs carrying a backpack full of the clean laundry. He is bursting with energy. They opt for receiving the cash payment for their time with us, sign the consent form. Jack sings out “Lets go!” “We’re going to take you where we go everyday” Alice tells us, and we step outside.
Walking down Queen Street they run into people they know. “See you later my lovely” Alice says to a young woman with purple and green hair and a ring in her nose. “She’s one of my favourite people” Alice tells me.
Alice and Jack are full of energy, like they had just drank 2 red bulls each themselves. We’re just so excited by the work you girls are doing, Jack tells me. “It’s so great to be hanging out with you. It’s people like you who help me grow, who build me up, build up my confidence”.
Jack is 42 years old. He is half native. He was adopted as an infant but didn’t like his adopted family and so ran away. “At 16 years old I was kicked out of the town of Ajax” he says. “I had been involved in too many break-ins and so they kicked me out”. He came to Toronto and has been on and off the streets most of his life. Well, the part of his life that hasn’t been spent in jail. He has spent a total of 21 years locked up. “2 years here, 5 years there, a deuce” he says. Mostly for assault, battery and break-in and enters. He tells me that his addictions are alcohol and weed, although, as he says “I’m not really addicted to alcohol, if i have 4 cans remaining I don’t feel like I have to finish them”.
Later on Alice tells me that Jack’s addiction is crystal meth. Jack tells me that he is 1 ½ months free of “Tina”, its street name. “What did you love about the drug?” I ask. “Crystal meth brings out the creative and productive side of you. You go 4 days without sleeping and you get so much done”. “What do you get done in 4 days?” Jack said they went to the food bank, and got their apartment all while high. But more than this they thought up hundreds of craft projects and other tasks they could do.
Jack says he stopped Tina without help. He stopped because he wants something better for his life. “If I don’t stay clean my dreams won’t come true. I’m a believer. I also have to be there to help her,” he points to Alice. “She makes me want to stay clean. I’m not going to make a weak ass thing like drugs take me down”.
Alice picks up ¾ of a cigarette from the street as we turn off Queen and onto Peter. They are taking us to the Peter Street referral centre. It’s the place where all street-involved people go to get assigned a bed for the night. If you rock up at a shelter they won’t let you in, you need to have a bed booked in advance and Peter Street referral does that booking for you. They also provide coffee, juice and cookies every day.
We are buzzed through a set of double doors and enter a white sterile space. It looks like the reception of a clinic or small hospital with posters for dentists and out off the street programs.
One at a time Alice and Jack sit at the reception and ask for a bed for the night. The receptionist checks a list and gives them instructions. She also gives them each a TTC token – the main reason Alice and Jack go there every day.
“What happens when you don’t show up at the shelter every night because you have housing?” I ask once we have gone back outside. “Nothing” Jack says. “They haven’t figured it out yet”. For Jack and Alice, Peter St. is their first stop. TTC tokens have a street value of $2.00 each. “We sell them to stores and make some extra money” Jack tells me.
We turn back onto Queen. Alice stops to pet a huge poodle tied to a post. “I love dogs like this”, she tells me. A salesperson from the cosmetic store we are standing outside hands us free samples of face cream. We all take one and Jack immediately opens his and slathers it on his face and hands. Alice puts hers in her pocket for later.
Alice is from Hamilton. She is 35 years old. She was adopted when she was just a baby but got in touch with her birth parents when she was still quite young. She frequently talks about her step-parents and her birth parents. She had a hard time with her step-parents, step dad was sexually abusive, also a drug addict and violent. Alice started smoking weed when she was 6 years old. She said that every time her step-dad was abusive she would go into his big plastic bag of weed and grab a handful. She would keep the weed in her closet. Whenever she was scared she would hide in the closet and would smoke the weed. She’s been smoking weed ever since.
Her biological father didn’t treat her much better – he was physically abusive. But sometimes her father phoned her uncle to come in and protect her and her sister from her stepfather. Alice told us to Google her uncle – a huge man, a champion wrestler. She was proud of him; even the fact that he is a member of a biker gang and is in prison charged with attempting to kill associates in his rival gang.
Alice has 12 children, 4 sets of twins and a few others. “Twins and quadruplets and quintuplets run in my family” she explains. Her kids all live with her stepparents. She says her stepparents have a huge house and they still recently adopted a few more people into the family. She and Jack were in Hamilton just last weekend. They took her mother and her brother-in law to Wimpey’s diner for dinner. The bill was $73. She didn’t mention visiting her children.
Doctors have told Alice that she has a borderline mood disorder, and suffers from depression. She also is diabetic, anaemic, has a heart arrhythmia and suffers from dizzy spells that often cause her to fall down. Jack says that she has had terrible things happen to her, abuse after abuse. But he’s not like that with her. He takes care of her.
We turn onto Spadina and walk into Chinatown with the cold wind on our backs. The unmanned stalls of clothes and fruit and food items become a topic of conversation. “If you guys weren’t here I would steal a pair of slippers” Alice says while Jack rolls his eyes. “I never steal from friends, but stealing from a corporation that’s fine, and stealing from here well that’s just too easy”.
As we walk past a clothing stand I notice a quick movement of her hand. “Did you just take something?” I asked, and she showed me the tuque with skulls on it. “It’s so easy” she repeats. As we walk past a food stall she tells me about stealing fruit the day before. She said she stole 2 mangos, a tomato and some apples. One in each sleeve, one in her pocket, and the rest in her bag. She admits that she has been arrested for stealing – but that time it really wasn’t her fault, she said she had had the money to pay.
We turn at the dumpling house onto a smaller street. The plan is to stop at their place so that they can leave the laundry, smoke a joint and get ready for dinner.
Alice stops to look at the dumpling makers for a few seconds. When we catch up to Jack he is crushing discarded beer cans with his foot. “This is 80 cents right here” he says with the same joy and enthusiasm that he started our tour with.
“Do you think you will find employment and go off OW or ODSP?” I ask him. The question goes unanswered.
Alice unlocks the door and we walk down a dark staircase into the basement. The kitchen is on the right. It consists of a sink, a small fridge, a toaster, a burner, a microwave and a shelf with books. There isn’t much evidence of food, or cooking utensils.
They pay $500 for this place – a tiny basement apartment likely rented by a slumlord, as is notorious in the market. Alice opens the door to their bedroom and welcomes us in. It is surprisingly ‘homey’ considering its a basement and its so small and cluttered with stuff. Jack throws down the heavy backpack and gets two camping chairs stored in the bathroom and sets them up for us. Alice turns on the TV. It is set to Hamilton news. We are pretty much knee to knee in the tiny room.
The main wall is yellow but covered in black spray painted graffiti. There are a few slogans written on the walls one of them says something about “flailing”. In one corner there is a pile of plastic bins. “The first one has my underwear in it, the second one my socks”. “Do you wear all these clothes?” I ask Alice. “Yes I do” she replies. Jack explains that Alice is a bit of a hoarder of clothes. I wonder how many of those clothes are shoplifted?
In front of the bins of clothes are boxes and boxes of breakfast cereals – cheerios, captain crunch and others. Also maple syrup and boxes of snacks. We don’t cook much Alice explains. “Will you cook more with your own kitchen?”. She doesn’t answer.
There is a baseball bat at the front door. I ask Jack if he has ever had to use it. “No, not yet. But I have to have it there in case”. From under the coffee table Jack pulls out some marijuana and rolls two joints. Alice starts playing slots on her phone again. “You guys are good luck” she says to me and Margaret. “I just got all 6 in a row”. She’s not playing for money. And she has unlimited internet data.
Jack shows us the vouchers they just received from St. Vincent De Paul. Two $25 vouchers for thrift store to buy clothes or furniture. They also get vouchers for No Frills grocery store. Jack explains that they get their vouchers separately rather than together, even though they are a couple and plan to get married. This way they get more.
Alice’s phone rings. She looks at the number and says it might be the police. Jack answers it and steps outside the room. Alice explains that Jack was pickpocketed and they have reported it to the police. When Jack returns, he says that he told the police their $500 rent money was in the wallet. He says it’s all about taking advantage of the system when you can. He’s hoping they will repay him the $500. He plans to use this bonus $500 money on buying Alice some nice things.
They bring out what looks like a little lunch box in which they keep their savings. Jack explains again that they are saving to move to the bigger bedroom upstairs. It will cost them about $150 more a month but that’s okay. They have been saving about $400 a month. It is his plan to pay first and last month’s rent up front. He has also paid their phone bill up until January 15th – he was really proud of this act.
Saving and planning seems to be a big thing for them. They have a calendar on the wall. Jack explains that he likes to make lists of things to do each week. Laundry, Going to the ID clinic, the dentist, the doctor.
They are almost done smoking the first joint and the room is full of smoke. There is no window in this apartment. The mood changes and Jack becomes sterner. He starts talking about revolution. He says whenever he can he converts his wealth into silver coins. He thinks in the future people will be trading goods not money, and silver coins will be the most valued.
I ask him again about his addiction and he talks about being free for 1.5 months. He says he hopes he can maintain it. “Enough is enough, I’ve seen quite a few friends get fucked up, aimlessly flailing”. He points to the slogan on the wall.
Jack changes the channel to Toronto news. The reporter is talking about Sinead O’Connor’s attempted suicide. Jack and Alice both lookup. They relax when they hear that it was just attempted, and that Sinead is still alive. “I loved that one song of hers” Jack says.
Alice smokes the last of the second joint and puts the roach in a pill jar.
Jack sips from a can of beer that somehow appeared, although I never heard one being opened.
It’s time to go have dinner.
There is a bowl of fruit next to the ashtray and before we go Jack offers each of us a mango. We decline. “Maybe next time”. Jack grabs a banana. Alice grabs an apple. They eat the fruit as we leave the apartment.
“We’re so excited to take you to the Sisters” Jack says, his exuberance back. “The great thing about the sisters is that they serve you”. They go to the Sisters –their nickname for a former convent now turned into community centre – for dinner Monday through Thursday. The other days they make do with spending some of their money on food. “You have to spend some of your money on food, otherwise you won’t get by”.
It’s now dark and cold. I put up my hood. Neither Alice nor Jack have winter coats, only layers of sweaters. “I’m going to buy a coat soon” Alice says. I’ve seen one I want, I will probably buy it with the big ODSP cheque Jack is waiting on”. Probably she will. If she doesn’t shoplift it first.
We cut through a small alleyway covered in graffiti and come out onto Augusta Avenue in the heart of the market. A couple more minutes and we walk into a hidden cul-de-sac where there is a community center. A couple people are outside zipping up their coats ready to go back onto the streets. We follow Alice and Jack in. They seem to know everyone.
The Sisters is a warm and inviting environment. It’s not cold and sterile like other places we have visited. After giving our names / or an assigned number used each time (for anonymity) to a woman with a notebook we are ushered in and take four seats. Servers immediately bring us plastic trays with plates of stew (cut up hot dogs in a veggie gravy), a piece of bread, and a bowl with some crumbled cookies and vanilla pudding. The servers are friendly and won’t take no for an answer even when Margaret and I decline eating. Jack and Alice are also eager that we eat with them. The food is tasty, if you like hotdogs.
Jack immediately transfers his stew into a Tupperware container he has brought with him. He then passes it onto Alice. “She needs to eat a lot” he explains. “So I give my food to her”. He takes half of his bread and wipes up the remains on his plate. I give him my food and he eats it quickly. He isn’t talking, which is unusual.
There is not much time for talk. The portions are small and people eat and then leave, although the atmosphere is warm and inviting. There is also a small area with computers and all of them are being used. I ask the lady with the notebook how many people they serve a day – she says about 80 is a full day.
We leave Alice and Jack outside the community centre smoking a cigarette. They are in good moods. It seems like it was a good day. They got $13.85 plus 2 tokens, a tuque, possibly $500 from the reported stolen wallet, and then an additional $30 from us. As I hand the money over to Jack, his words “you have to hustle” rings in my mind. It doesn’t matter: they took us on a good tour.