Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Homelessness: It’s not an “us” and “them” Situation

Ray May of Good Neighbours' Club

Ray May has lived on the streets and knows what it can do to a man.  At 62, he has come back from addiction and homelessness, and now seeks to help others just like him make their way up from despair and into a better life. For Ray, that means donating many hours a week to The Good Neighbours’ Club, a day club for homeless men who are 50 years of age and over.

The club provides a safe place for older men to go in the day, showers, good food, a place for mail, AA meetings, diabetic clinics, clothing, counseling, phones, computers, burial, and other services and amenities they might otherwise go without. For more than 5000 members, the club is their lifeline, a place for companionship in a very cold world.

The club has existed since 1933, founded initially to give shell shocked, homeless WW I veterans somewhere to go in the day. 80 per cent of its funding comes from the United Way and the remaining 20 per cent comes from donations and grants. The club has always operated on a lean budget but its membership is increasing, its reserve is dwindling and its funders have made it clear that there is no additional money in the budget.

That has May worried and wondering what would happen to other men if the club had to dramatically scale back its services or, worse, close.

“The Club helped me get housed,” says May. “I was living in a shelter. I wanted to go see my grand kids but the shelter told me if I left, I’d lose my place. A [Good Neighbours’ Club] member who worked in the kitchen told me he’d help and sure enough, he got me into his building, into the place right beside him. People here help you however they can.”

Men who have been in May’s position need all the help they can get.

By the time a homeless man is 50, his body is often wracked with diseases and conditions more in keeping with a man decades older.  He is almost always medically frail and vulnerable.  His experiences often leave him disconnected from society as a whole. But at The Good Neighbours’ Club, he is accepted.

Out there, it’s a different story.

“I seen people beaten up over a cigarette,” May says. “I’ve been beaten up for nothing too. Some of the guys now are sleeping all together down at City Hall. It’s safer that way.”

May has seen many lives undone by the street, but the death that haunts him most is that of Paul Croutch, a close friend. Croutch was a 59 year old former journalist who battled mental illness, alcoholism and homelessness. On August 31, 2005, Croutch was resting on his favourite bench when young, drunken soldiers from a nearby armoury pummeled him with kicks and blows. He died a few days later in hospital.

Until his death, Croutch spent his days at the club, one of the few places he felt safe. He preferred sleeping outdoors to sleeping in crowded shelters which, ironically, he felt were too dangerous.

“Lots of people won’t stay in the hostels,” says Jerry Domnski, 71, another friend of Croutch’s and also a member of the Good Neighbours’ Club. “The reason why? There’s a lot of trouble.”

Accordingly to Dr. Stephen Hwang, a leading Toronto-based researcher on homelessness, the murder rate of homeless men in Canada, while much lower than in the US, is still two and a half times higher than that of Canadian housed men of the same age.

Domnski thinks Croutch was targeted for one reason only.

“He never bothered nobody. It’s age, you know. Young guys coming down and doing it,” Domnski says.

The homeless are extremely vulnerable to attack, often by younger men, and in many places, the trend is growing – and very worrying. The US based National Coalition for the Homeless released a report over the summer which noted that attacks against the homeless are rising. Those 25 or younger constitute 73% of perpetrators, and the  vast majority of those are thrill seekers, many in their teens, believed to be inspired by violent games and “bum fight” internet videos.

The homeless make easy targets for the frustrated, the disenfranchised, and the drunk.

The Toronto Police do not keep specific stats on violence against the homeless, but a 2007 Streethealth Report surveying the homeless found levels of violence 35 times greater than the general population. Within the previous year, 1 in 3 homeless persons reported being the victim of assault and 1 in 8 reported being assaulted by police.

On September 12th, almost four years to the day that Paul Croutch died, Donald Jackson, 71 and homeless, was savagely beaten while sitting on a bench in the Veterans’ section in Toronto’s Pine Hills Cemetery.  He died six days later in hospital. A 14 year old girl has been charged with first degree murder. A 26 year old man has also been charged.

At least, in the club, the men feel safe. And that’s important for all the members, but especially for those who are newly homeless. And in an unstable economy with an aging population, there are many new homeless.

There are four, recently donated, state of the art computers at The Good Neighbours’ Club. They belonged to four men, IT professionals, who received them as part of their redundancy packages. Laid off months before, unable to find work, they have entered the shelter system and they cannot take the computers in with them. At night, they sleep wherever they can. In the day, they come by to use the same computers they gave up looking for work and a little hope.

“Yup,” says May, “I don’t know what would happen to a lot of these men without this place.”

Want to know more about Paul Croutch? Watch this Paul Croutch slide show.

Photo credit for photo at top of this article: Susan Wright.

Slide show by Susan McLennan.

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