Homelessness in and around the Victoria College campus

Content warning: discussions of police violence and illness.

In my years at Victoria College, I have witnessed an uncomfortable contrast of our campus and neighbourhood’s wealth with the harsh reality of urban homelessness visible in these same spaces.

Since the rise of neoliberal economics in the 1970s and the subsequent end of federal leadership in housing policy in the early 1990s, there has been a drastic decline in provincial and municipal investment in new affordable housing units, as well as a significant reduction in funding to non-profits and cooperatives that engage in the same type of work. This paralleled a rise in economic inequality and homelessness. Today, in the city of Toronto, the average waiting time for a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) unit—what may be commonly known as “subsidized” or “social” housing—is eight years. Moreover, 200,000 people are on the waitlist for just 70,000 subsidized units. Compared to recent decades, today there are more people living in precarious housing, unsanitary and unsafe shelters, or on the street.

As Victoria College students, we have undoubtedly seen some of these people around our community. Under the extravagant window displays on Bloor Street, a 60-year-old man lies on the ground with a circular piece of plastic suspended over his head, for people to drop their loose change into. For years I have challenged myself never to normalize their situation or their suffering. Part of this involves simply listening to their stories.

I met John* this summer as I was scurrying up the stairs that lead out of the Bloor-Yonge subway station. I noticed him struggling down the steps with a large duffle bag. When I asked if I could help with his things, I was surprised by his quick reply: “Yes, please.” John moaned and whimpered as we walked towards the food court where we rested his things on a table. He explained that he had been pushed into the subway tracks earlier that morning, and had sustained injuries to both legs.

After I agreed with John that he should go back to the ER, he asked me to watch his things so he could make a few purchases. He returned with two bottles of liquor from the LCBO just around the corner. I understood, but still he explained, “It’s just too painful.”  

While in the cab on the way to the ER, I asked John more questions. Earlier, he had mentioned he had gastric carcinoma; in the cab, he clarified that his cancer was in its fourth stage. I realized John was dying. He explained that he had been panhandling in his usual spot in the morning, and would have to return in the evening so that he could make enough to pay the daily cost of his medication. We also talked about his studies in college, subsidized by the military. John had served around the world for 30 years. He brushed over an incident where he was held captive in Afghanistan and brutally tortured.

In that moment, I held back my tears and my rage. How had this veteran’s 30-year service to his country left him in this situation? Homeless, battling cancer, coping with PTSD and substance abuse, with a pension that just covered his son’s living costs. I can often find John at Bay and Bloor. When I see him, I sit down and we catch up. It is never easy; he usually tells me that he is tired of living like this and is “ready to go.” Whenever I don’t see him at his regular spot I wonder if he has, in fact, already gone. Every second Tuesday of the month, the Church of the Holy Trinity located outside of the Eaton Centre commemorates the deaths of the newest victims of homelessness. The fact that we need to have a memorial service every month breaks my heart.

On top of all of these challenges, stigma and stereotypes associated with homeless individuals add to their difficulties. Two years ago, I was studying at the Tim Hortons on Bay Street when two police officers walked in. One of them began verbally harassing a man at a booth and ordering him to leave the premises. The man was slow to respond to the officer and looked fatigued and disoriented. Instead of helping the man, who clearly looked unwell, the officer reached down, grabbed his ankles and pulled him out the booth. The man’s head hit the ground and the officer literally dragged his body across the floor, picked him up and kicked him out of the café.

As a residence don, my colleagues and I engage with the issue of homelessness exclusively with regards to security on campus. We hear concerns from students about “suspicious” or “sketchy” people around the college campus, and advise students to call security or Campus Police if they feel uncomfortable. Of course, there is nothing wrong with prioritizing safety, but I take issue with our lack of attention to confronting the glaring stereotypes of homeless or visibly poor people as dangerous. As leaders in the community, we should be able to encourage safety while challenging misconceptions. It is our homeless community members that bear the greatest cost of such false narratives, sometimes with their own lives.

It is crucial for us to reconceptualise the spaces we inhabit as members of the Vic community, as an exercise in empathy. Although the Victoria College campus and its surrounding community may be symbolic of new beginnings, academic rigour, or inclusivity to you or me, I challenge you to try on a new lens. Upon your usual late-night stop at the McDonald’s at Yonge and Charles, you might notice the Sanctuary, a community centre and safe space for homeless individuals. On your next run to Dollarama to pick up more dish soap, décor, or cheap snacks, notice the gentleman in the food aisle buying his next two meals. Waiting at the intersection of Bloor and Queen’s Park, notice the woman walking down the steps to the basement of the Church of the Redeemer to have her first meal of the day. Or, on your next run to the LCBO, notice the gentleman with all his possessions on his back buying the cheapest liquor to get him through the next cold and lonely night.

Until we start to pay attention to this alternative narrative, and the way familiar spaces are used for basic human survival, we will remain blinded by our own immense privilege, and ignore one of the most blatant examples of inequality persisting within our own community.

* John’s name was changed for the sake of privacy,

This article is part of an ongoing series in which The Strand tackles issues relating to systemic oppression, privilege, and identity. All are welcome to contribute to the discussion. Pitches should be directed to opinions@thestrand.ca.