An upcoming photo exhibit tells the stories of homeless people from the downtown east side.
There’s been a big chill in Toronto lately. The first few weeks of 2015 have seen a rash of deaths from people freezing outdoors, and the City has taken notice. Discussion of how Toronto supports its homeless population and accompanying infrastructure has grown, and the proposed City budget includes increased funding for shelters. These are important issues to address, but it seems Toronto only does so when it’s -20° C and shelters are beyond capacity.
During the warmer months in 2014, Gupta set out with her camera and spoke with people she encountered on sunny days in Moss Park and Allan Gardens. On leave from her job as a social services caseworker (and not a professional photographer, by her own admission), Gupta was curious to learn more about the people she saw in parks in the downtown east side and hear their stories.
Gupta hopes People in Parks helps humanize people who often aren’t able to speak for themselves—or asked to.
“People only care about the homeless in the winter because it’s obvious and cold,” she says.
Twice a week or so, for several weeks in the summer, she went to the parks and approached people on benches.
“I was always surprised at how many people wanted to talk. In fact, often I had to stop them because they were telling me too much! I realized how lonely people can be and a simple ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ goes a long way.”
The range of stories of how people came to various shelters surprised her. There are trios of older men in their 60s who gather together from dawn to dusk, and have stories similar to each other. Some people immigrated to Canada, and others are Newfoundlanders yearning to go home. One man from Scarborough crashes at a shelter when he needs a place downtown for health treatments. There are some women, too, but not as many.
Gupta encounters all kinds of park people, and not just those who live in the nearby shelters: she snaps a photo of two Parks employees who say they don’t mind the people the parks attract, but add they don’t understand why they can’t just pick up their litter. One older man wandering through the botanical gardens is in town from Ottawa to visit his son.
Gupta explains that homelessness is most visible in these parks because of their close proximity to the numerous shelters and drop-in centres in the neighbourhood. Wards 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) and 28 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), and to a lesser extent Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park), have social-service needs disproportionate to the rest of the city, and it’s difficult for their respective councillors to build political support when most other wards don’t have the same issues. She sees a lot of NIMBYism that is hostile towards shelters, too.
“There are homeless people everywhere. Wherever there is a shelter, they’ll go,” she says. She notes there is one in Scarborough that is not generally accessible by foot or public transit, nor surrounded by other amenities, but is nonetheless full.
Gupta is appalled at the condition of facilities in Toronto, and says “shelters need to be better.”
“Guys that I met, they are older and don’t want to return to employment. Housing would fix that. Shelters are really awful, especially men’s shelters. Women’s shelters are run differently and aren’t as bad but could be better. Men’s shelters are dangerous: precarious living arrangements, running from the law, illegal addiction, it’s all there, but it’s not everyone. It’s shameful, it’s awful, like incarceration. It’s not safe. People are afraid to go back at night.”
Typically, shelters have strict curfews to encourage order and maintain a schedule, which is why people hang out in parks. Toronto’s shelters are less than stellar, to say the least, and many people try to draw their days out in order to avoid unsavoury characters they encounter once they turn in for the night. In the summer that’s no problem, but in the winter it’s a challenge.
Some people in shelters flout rules and do drugs, Gupta says, and disrupt others who are trying to get a good night’s sleep in order to start the next day right. For people who have a job to get to or meetings to keep the next morning, the atmosphere can make it more difficult.
Not everyone is at the shelter for the same reason, says Gupta. Plenty of people have regular jobs but are in need of temporary housing, while others are there as a result of addiction. Supporting people with different needs can be challenging, and can be the source of rifts within shelters.
With 15 years of experience working with homeless individuals, Gupta readily doles out ideas on how to respond to the challenges of what’s happening on the streets and in shelters. First and foremost, she says building more affordable housing that caters to a variety of demographics could solve many people’s cases. She adds that there is no one-size-fits-all apartment design, and there needs to be diversity in what’s built to reflect the needs of the people the housing is meant to support.
She refers to Ina, a 69-year-old woman who lives in a halfway home, and the specific needs that her situation speaks to.
“Shelters are temporary but now there is long-term rooming for housing residents who can’t go to homes for the aged. It’s what happens to old people who are left without any other option.” She calls attention to the need to address this aging population and provide people like Ina with more options than temporary shelter.
Gupta adds that there are meaningful ways to make a difference on an individual level. She says person-to-person encounters have a large impact on people who might be accustomed to being on their own, and encourages more of it.
Ask them their name, how they are doing, and if you are inclined to give them something, ask them what they might want or need, she says. If you’d rather not give currency, Gupta suggests gift cards to Tim Hortons or McDonald’s instead.
“A gift card has a double purpose: it not only buys someone a warm meal, but it also buys them time in a warm, safe place where they won’t be kicked out. It buys them dignity.”