January 2002
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Walking the streets
By: Clarissa Jessop, Grade 9, Sydney, NS

Moving from place to place to keep warm. Finding a park bench to call home for the night. Popping into a shelter to get a bowl of soup.

That’s the plight of thousands and thousands of homeless people in Canada.

In Toronto alone over 30,000 people, many of them children, stay in shelters each year. Statistics Canada tells us there are over 200,000 homeless people in our country.

Five years ago, my brother John, was one of those people. Our family can be considered middle class. We live in a lovely home in a small community in Nova Scotia. So how could this happen to my brother - a good student who went to college. John went to Toronto in 1997 to look for work. “I’ll have a job in no time”, he said as we dropped him at the airport. “Don’t forget to call if you need anything”, my mom said through her tears.

He had enough money he felt to last him at least three months. He found a couple of guys to share an apartment with, went looking for work every day. Those three months went by fast and soon he found himself with $50 left and unable to pay rent.

“I couldn’t pay the rent. The guys let me stay an extra week, but then I had to leave. I went to the YMCA for a couple of days, then to a shelter” John told me. “I kept thinking, this can’t be happening to me”.

During the day, he walked the streets looking for work. At night he’d find a shelter, or if there wasn’t any room, he’d find an abandoned building. “I found a part time job in a coffee shop, enough to get a meal but definitely not enough for a room”. John did this for two months. Eventually he found the courage to call home. Mom and Dad were very worried. They had not heard from him in a while and when they called the apartment where he was staying, nobody knew where he was. John didn’t call because he was depressed and ashamed. My parents were able to send him some money to get him a roof over his head for a while. One month later he found a full time job. He is married now, lives in Brampton and is very happy. He also works at a food bank and shelter to help those who are in the same position he was in.

Fortunately for my family, John’s story has a good ending. That is not the case for the over 200,000 homeless people in this country who are still walking the streets, looking for food and shelter wherever they can get it.

Who are these people and how do they end up on the streets? They are families who can’t afford housing and live in an area where low-income housing is scarce. They are young people going to the big city to find their fortunes. They are kids who feel they can no longer live at home and end up trying to survive on the streets. They are the mentally ill who, because of hospital cuts, have no place to turn. They are Canada’s forgotten citizens.

Cities throughout Canada are struggling with this crisis. Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Hamilton and others have set up task forces to try and address the issue. Social action organizations and community groups call it ‘a national disaster’. Many of these groups believe that the increase in homelessness is a direct result of government spending cuts and lack of low-cost housing in Canada. Homeless people die in the streets. It’s been happening for years. Most recently, there were several deaths of homeless people in Toronto and in December a homeless person, a Korean War vet, died on the streets of Halifax.

It seems city, provincial and federal governments are arguing about ‘who is responsible’. While they argue about what to do and who is responsible, people on the streets suffer from malnutrition and are literally ‘freezing to death’.

For many of us with our homes and supportive families, your own bedroom, television sets, cell phones, cars, nice clothes and lots of food to eat ~ ~ it can be hard to conceive that over 200,000 people in our country are struggling for basic, basic food and shelter.