BY: GARY SEWARD
It’s a humid summer night and the street is littered with the day’s newspapers, Starbucks cups, trash and all things discarded. The gleams from the streetlight strike the damp concrete creating an amber glow in the dusk. The street is empty and quiet and for Riley it’s a fleeting getaway from the everyday hustle. During the day this stretch of King Street from Dovercourt down to Dufferin is teeming with life, but tonight it’s a safe place for Riley to walk and find a new place to sleep. His old squatting place under the bridge along the Don Valley was recently taken over by some other street kids or “gutter rats” as Riley would describe them.
Being homeless in Toronto is not an easy deal. The violence, substance abuse, constant harassment from the police and general public make it very hard to live on the streets with a relaxed mind. For the countless homeless queer youth the dangers of homelessness are even further amplified.
Riley was 17 when he was kicked out of his house by his domineering father for discovering Riley was gay. After being kicked out he did what many youth do and he fled to the metropolis of Toronto from his suburban home in Oshawa.
“I can’t really stay in any shelters because the violence toward anyone perceived as being gay is extreme. And the only place [Eva’s Phoenix] some can turn to is always full and has a long waitlist.” –Riley *
Most nights Riley, along with many homeless youth, spend a lot of time looking for places to squat or couches to surf. Some nights, though, they are left to wander the streets until daybreak and they can either start a grueling new day of panhandling or squeegeeing – or finally pass out in a park.
Like many homeless individuals, Riley spends a good portion of his day panhandling on the streets, in particular the stretch of Queen St. from Bay over to Bathurst. On typical day Riley pulls in around $60, mostly in change. He’s made a career out of annoying Bay Streeters and tourists who toss change in hopes of not making eye contact.
“Most days I can make around $50-$60 from just begging, but that’s a full day not just a few hours. I used to squeegee a lot with some kids I knew. But it’s really dangerous. I have had my feet run over quite a few times and the cops target us hard when we do it. But when I was squeegeeing I was making more than $100 a day.”
With no ID, Riley is having a hard time applying for Social Assistance and finding there are quite a few barriers to get onto Ontario Works. Contrary to the unsympathetic response of “why don’t the homeless just get a job like the rest of us?”, without Ontario Works there is virtually no way someone homeless can become employed. That coupled with the prospect that Toronto apartments are not rent controlled, Riley is not optimistic for his future.
“I totally fucking gave up on thinking I would get out of this. It’s a cycle. It’s really awful. This is a great city for people who have money and a purpose but I am just a throwaway. I don’t belong. I am just waiting for the day when there’s pest control for people like me.”
I spent the afternoon one-day with Riley on Queen and Spadina where other homeless, vulnerable people hang out and was shocked to discover other people who had been living on the streets of Toronto for years, even in one case over a decade. I stood in front of the McDonald’s listening to story after story of gay men or trans people being viscously attacked in shelters and shelter staff turning blind eyes to the abuse. One particular story stained my mind about a young boy hogtied in a shower and beaten to the point of unconsciousness.
The Government of Canada published very conservative stats that 150,000 youth are homeless in Toronto but that number is believed to be at least double; with 40% of the youth population on the streets being queer and from middle class families.
In a July 10th city council vote recommending that the City of Toronto investigate more support systems for homeless LGBTQ youth, Mayor Rob Ford cast a lone vote in opposition. More so than any media crack antics, this made me truly ashamed of Toronto’s leadership.
Riley isn’t just some rebellious 19-year-old kid who hates his parents and is lazy. He was thrown away for being gay and is now invisible because of it.
Complacency is cancer. Why are we remaining complacent in having teenagers and young people on the street? Most people walking down the street in Toronto would look at a decrepit desk or chair sitting on the curbside and see the potential in restoration, but why can we not see the same potential in homeless youth?
*Name changed for confidentiality purposes*