Joseph Dale lived under the Bathurst bridge, until he had to move. He lived under the Spadina bridge, until he had to move. He lived in Grange Park, in alleys and doorways along Queen Street West, and a warehouse loading dock near Portland and King Streets.“Places are disappearing,” Dale tells me, tentatively.
“Out of sight; out of mind,” is the philosophy, he explains.
Dale has told me this before. He tells me about the lack of public space and the senseless beatings and ticketing by police; the overall marginalization of homelessness.
Though, few people may be inclined to listen to this. A few years ago, a Salvation Poll revealed that 40% of Canadians believe most homeless people want to live on the streets.
This marginalization still irritates Dale, even though he is someone who is “housed” now.
“What’s your definition of home then?” I ask Dale. “Well, it’s still not the traditional definition of home– not a house or an apartment,” says Dale. “For a long time, home was wherever my dog was.”
Dale is now a 29-year-old Ryerson student, majoring in history and interested in the Second World War and Japanese colonialism. Dale was also one of the 100,000 youth who, in any given year, are homeless, according to Covenant House statistics for Toronto.
The marginalization of those who experience homelessness is not just a personal premonition that Dale holds; It’s systematic.
Legislation that’s been around since the late 1990s, the Ontario Safe Streets Act, has been used by police to criminalize homelessness by ticketing the homeless for panhandling, most of whom cannot afford to pay fines. Many housing advocates have fought against this, including the former attorney-general of Ontario and Toronto-area MPP Michael Brant who once supported it.
For the 10 years that Dale spent on and off the streets, he was one of those “homeless kids” eligible for a fine; He was one of the 36% of street youth who earn money by panhandling or “squeegeeing,” a Covenant House statistic.
But again, few are inclined to listen to this, including the Supreme Court, as it struck down an appeal to the Safe Streets Act in 2012. Add to that the 30 per cent of Canadians who believe a “good work ethic” is the answer to escaping homelessness, and the 20 per cent who believe that those without a home are “always” to blame (again, both findings of the Salvation Army poll).
Homelessness is the societal cast away. But as a “homeless youth,” Dale was one of the more hopeful statistics.
“It’s [youth] a turning point before homelessness becomes chronic,” manager at Covenant House Rose Cino told me after more than 75 high-profile executives “slept out” last week, raising funds for youth homelessness. CTV’s headline: “Executives brave cold weather.”
A group of executives wearing brand-name jackets, with high-end tents and sleeping bags, might have been a peculiar sight for Dale. They did raise more than $900,000 for youth homelessness. But when I explain this scenario to him, he laughs.
“Well that’s just it,” Dale says. “You spent one night outside — it’s winter camping. It’s okay for awareness, I guess.”
For the below zero nights, there are shelters for sleeping, many would say; They can go inside.
But Dale would only be found in a shelter once from the time he was 16 to 24 years old. He was not part of the 3,000 youth that, according to its annual report, Covenant House provides services to every year.
Outside, it was several blankets, a warm jacket, sweaters, long underwear, definitely. Dale holds up a vest with a hole in the left, vest pocket. A faux police badge was fastened there until the police cut it out.
It’s wasn’t the staff at the shelters, Dale tells me. “It’s very territorial,” he explains. “I went to a shelter once and got half my stuff stolen and I didn’t go back,” he pauses. “Shelters are great for some people,” he pauses again. “But they don’t work for a lot of people.”
Dale felt much safer sleeping under the Bathurst bridge. He knew everyone who was sleeping there, and trusted everyone there. “No one would steal what I owned,” he says.
The street was better; the street was safer.
Dale says he doesn’t like to talk about why he took to the streets. But one could say he was part of the 70 per cent of youth who leave home because of “neglect” or “abuse” in Toronto, according to Covenant House.
To an outsider, it may seem as though Dale made the choice to leave home, and subsequently, chose to live on the street.
“No, this was not by choice,” Dale would assure me. “And I think if you spoke to most people, 90 per cent would say they never wanted this.”
Dale left home before he got his high school diploma from Central Technical School near Bathurst and Harbord Streets. He loved school, he says. He always loved history. But by the age of 18, now on the streets, Dale contracted addictions to drugs and alcohol.
Addiction, many assume, is one major cause for homelessness. Not for Dale. The experience of homelessness led to the addiction. Stress can be a major reason for addiction; so can hopelessness.
“I know it sounds crappy, but it’s something to wake up for,” he tells me. “Some people will also say its a “choice” for a person to be a drug addict,” he adds, pausing. “But you don’t know what’s happened in that persons life that caused them to do that.”
“No six-year-old says they want to be a junkie,” Dale adds.
Dale got housed, so the problem was solved. But then he got unhoused, and housed again and then unhoused again, every time in buildings filled with other people suffering from addictions.
“If you have any addictions of mental health issues too bad, you deal with it yourself,” Dale explains. “They [housing agency] might come once after they’ve housed you and check that you got your furniture from the furniture bank of whatever, but then they wipe their hands and say see you later.”
According to Streets to Homes, the drop-in center that housed Dale, they’ve served the community almost 106,000 times since November 2010. But there are no statistics on the how many of those people remain housed.
It was a story Dale read in a newspaper that was the beginning of his “break”; an escape from becoming one of the single adult males between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half of the homeless population in Canada, according to a Wellesley Institute report.
The story was about the man co-founded Second Cup, Frank O’Dea. He was homeless at one point. “Basically, for him,” Dale recalls, “He said he could no longer reconcile the way he was living with the way he was raised.”
“I didn’t like the way I was living and for many years,” Dale pauses, “And I couldn’t really make sense of it.”
Dale made the call to admissions at Ryerson University. He was “lucky enough” to have encountered a person who was helpful, perhaps exceptionally helpful. Dale was told how to get the proper documentation, the proper accreditation and how to make an application.
“A lot of it was my initiative,” Dale tells me. “But I mean, if I hadn’t called and gotten a person who was helpful, who knows. And It’s a shame because there a lot of people out there who would like to be contributing members of society. They just have no idea how to navigate the system.”
Dale still maintains a fairly low-profile, dresses in conventional colours, works part-time at Sobeys on Yonge Street, likes cream and sugar in his coffee, studies hard for his course work and tells me about pursuing a masters in Russian history, perhaps at U of T.
Dale had a few challenges while adjusting to university, but nothing out of the ordinary. A friend of Dale’s got him housed again, more sustainably, and he’s remained with the same agency but switched buildings. But there’s one other difference; one thing that’s changed.
At the end of August, Dale found out that his dog Cyrus had a tumor. There was a dismal chance that Cyrus would survive. “It’s not worth living with that quality of life,” Dale explains. So Dale made a choice: “I hope I did not come off as callous when speaking about putting my dog down,” he wrote to me later in a letter.
“It is just the unfortunate reality of my situation and many others that due to a limited income choices that are not always pleasant have to be made (It’s not just with the dog either, last semester I had to choose between books or transit) Cyrus was my best friend, so I did not make the decision to put him down lightly….Strange as it may sound, I finally came to the realization that putting him down was the final act of care and kindness that I could do for him.”