There are posters on the walls and plants in the corners of a warehouse in Toronto –
Murray MacAdam reports on an extraordinary experiment.
photo by MURRAY MACADAM
Against overwhelming odds, some homeless people manage to exchange life on the streets for a real home.
In Canada’s largest city, Toronto, new life is blossoming for several dozen former street people behind the bland exterior of an old downtown warehouse. Everyone has their own room – small and sparsely furnished, but palatial for someone used to sleeping in a room with 20 people in a hostel. And some have found work.
This is ‘Street City’, a unique residence for 76 men and women willing to tough out the stresses of living at close quarters in exchange for mutual support, secure housing and the chance to get one’s life together.
Street City started as a hostel for men in 1988 when the city’s real-estate boom wiped out affordable housing for the poor. A popular downtown hostel closed, leaving homeless people with nowhere to go and unwilling to stay in big institutional hostels, widely hated for their violence and prison-like atmosphere.
One of these street people, Jess, made the rounds of hostels and drop-in centres, gathering 5,000 names on a petition against the loss of housing for the poor. Jess and his friends got Toronto’s mayor on their side. Their efforts paid off when the city agreed to let them stay in an abandoned warehouse.
But Jess and others, joined by a non-profit housing agency called ‘Homes First Society’, had a vision that went far beyond the dreary street-and-hostel life in which they seemed trapped. That vision was one of affordable, permanent housing in a mutually supportive setting.
At first it looked like a dream. ‘We thought: there’s no way any government is going to give a bunch of drunks, guys from the street, $5 million to build housing,’ recalls Jess.
Yet the dream took shape as ‘Homes First’ gained government funding, while the men set to work with hammers and tools to transform the lower floor of the warehouse into simple accommodation.
Today Street City houses an equal number of men and women, in separate ‘houses’ of 12 people each, all within the sprawling confines of the former warehouse. Residents, most living on social assistance, pay an average $325 a month rent. That’s a big bite out of monthly income of only $520. But it’s less than the going rate for a single room in Toronto where, as one resident says: ‘You could die and no-one would know it.’
Despite posters on the walls and plants in the corners, Street City still resembles a warehouse. Yet it hums with life. Residents stroll along its ‘Main Street’, nodding to each other and relaxing in battered easy chairs.
‘I love it here,’ says Mark, a gaunt man pushing his wheelchair along Main Street, still bitter about his life in a mental institution for 30 years. ‘I had too many people ordering me what to do. Now I got lots of friends. I don’t bother nobody and nobody bothers me. I got my own life.’
Street City is home to many ‘psychiatric survivors’ like Mark, and others left on the margins of mainstream society, such as long-time homeless people and chronic alcoholics. Staff and residents readily admit that alcohol and crack cocaine are problems. But living in a place where differences are accepted and help is available has enabled some residents to overcome their addictions.
Bill came to Street City planning to stay for two weeks. ‘I fell in love with the place,’ he says, and was soon elected ‘mayor’ of the community. He spends hours talking to people, listening to their gripes and working to resolve problems. Life in this unique community can be difficult, he admits: ‘We’ve had some pretty wild times.’ But, he believes there is a sense of caring that more than makes up for the difficulties.
Working out the tensions of life at close quarters is made smoother by the community’s mediation process. Privacy is at a premium and conflicts are frequent. Disputes, often involving noise or men bothering women, are brought before a group that includes a member of staff and someone from outside. The group tries to show how the behaviour involved is wrong. In most cases mediation works, although some people are evicted.
Shared decision-making is another key ingredient. All major issues are brought before the community’s ‘town council’ where everyone can make their voice heard.
Another focus is work. Street City’s bank, canteen, maintenance crew and other businesses employ twelve residents part-time, while another five are involved in building another housing project for people on low-income.
Living in what is basically a commune is something most Canadians would prefer to avoid. But community and self-help provide the residents of Street City with a quality of life many can’t find elsewhere – as well as offering a lesson for society on how homeless people can solve their own problems with modest public support.
‘This is a small model of how we as a society should function,’ says member of staff Krista Ellis. Ironically, Ontario’s new right-wing government recently killed its support for non-profit housing, making it almost impossible for any more Street City-style housing to be developed.
Murray MacAdam is a freelance journalist working in Toronto.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996