BY RYAN BOWMAN
This is the third of a five-part series examining the causes and consequences of homelessness in Waterloo Region.
When KP used to walk the cobblestone streets of Montreal as a McGill University student, he would pass the panhandlers without acknowledging their weary faces and outstretched hands.
“I used to avoid homeless people,” says the 51-year-old, who graduated from McGill in 2007 with an MSc in psychiatry. “Not because I had anything against them, but because I always feared that one day it would be me.”
A little more than five years later, it is.
KP, who does not want his real name used, took his first sip of alcohol as a teenager and has been struggling with substance abuse ever since. He has been homeless since Aug. 6, 2012 – the day he was released from Maplehurst Correctional Complex after serving a sentence for assault with a weapon.
Penniless and on the brink of bankruptcy, he says his current situation is in many ways a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“I always sensed in the back of my mind that if I didn’t drink myself to death, I would be living on the streets at some point down the road,” he says. “I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.”
And though he’s always been half-expecting it, KP says life as a homeless man has been a difficult transition.
“It’s definitely not what I would choose,” he says, “but I’m rolling with it.”
It’s a life that has seen him sleep in parks and in stairwells, and on occasion, in dumpsters.
“The dumpsters that recycle cardboard are good,” he says. “They keep you warm and they keep you dry. Newspapers are good for that too. You can put them under your clothes to stay warm.”
But as the temperatures at night are beginning to drop, the shelter situation for the area’s homeless population is looking up; last week, Waterloo Region’s Out of the Cold program started.
Hosted by a different church every night of the week, the program provides the homeless and working poor a hot meal and a warm place to spend the night.
“Without the churches, we’d be fucked,” KP says. “There’s just nowhere else to go. We’d freeze to death.”
It is at the United Trinity Church program in downtown Kitchener that I meet KP for the first time. He’s dark-skinned and clean-shaven and wears a pair of thick-rimmed eyeglasses. Even though we’re indoors, he’s bundled up in layers of clothing. Atop his head sits a trapper hat with earflaps.
We find a table in the quietest corner of the church’s sanctuary, which is filled from wall to wall with single mattresses covered with multi-coloured blankets. As KP speaks about his life on the streets, he pulls a Ziploc bag from the pocket of his oversized parka. He crumbles the tobacco from several cigarette butts onto the table and begins rolling a cigarette with his dark, dirty fingertips.
“They were saying it was going to rain today, so I went to the bus depot early and collected as much dry tobacco as possible,” he says.
Without looking up from his task at hand, he answers my next question before I have a chance to ask it.
“I’ve had to learn to swallow my pride and embrace the notion of not caring what other people think of me,” he says. “I need tobacco and I have no money to buy it. It’s more important for me to pick up that butt than to worry what other people think.”
He puts the finishing twist on his rolling paper and says it’s time for a smoke.
KP stands against the cold brick wall of the church and lights his homemade smoke with a Coors Light lighter. After a couple of long drags he says he’s craving a drink.
“Today was a horrible day,” he says with a sigh. “It was cold, it was rainy. Some days are worse than others, but today was just terrible.
“If I had enough money for mouthwash, I would drink it. I’d rather have Jack Daniels, but I’d drink it. I have 97 cents in my pocket.”
A typical day for KP begins at 7 a.m., when the Out of the Cold staff wakes up the guests. After breakfast, he’s out the door and on his own until suppertime at the next site. It makes for long, boring days, KP tells me more than once.
When he’s not collecting cigarette butts, KP spends time wandering the streets or hanging out at one of the public libraries, where he reads or surfs the Internet. Mostly though, he’s focused on survival.
“Right now my priorities are all about where I’m sleeping tomorrow, where I’m getting my next meal. Is it gonna rain? How much snow is there gonna be?”
He takes a final pull from his cigarette and throws it on the damp concrete between his Rockports.
“Weekends are pretty bad,” he says. “Places like the soup kitchen and government buildings are only open five days a week. And holidays are dreaded because all the services are cut.
“When you’re homeless, you can’t take a day off.”
“Now I have $1.07.”
KP unzips his backpack and deposits the crushed Molson Dry can among his rolled up clothes and toiletries.
It’s 9:30 p.m., and we’ve been wandering the streets of downtown Kitchener for nearly an hour. KP has shown me the best garbage bins for “dumpster diving” (scrounging for food), the porta-potty in which he’s spent more than one rainy night curled up on the floor and the dumpster where he slept off his 51st birthday celebration a week earlier.
“I used to take for granted the value of a penny,” he says. “I would put everything on credit and now that I can’t do that, I can’t buy anything.”
KP says there was a time not too long ago when he was making $50,000 a year, tax-free. Now he receives $161.50 per month from Ontario Works.
Other than a 2007 Audi, which he keeps parked at a friend’s house and cherishes too much to sell, all of his belongings fit within the zippered confines of a red and black gym bag.
They consist of two or three changes of clothes, a small can of shaving cream, a women’s razor (“They’re better than men’s because they’re made for sensitive skin.”), a tube of toothpaste, a stick of deodorant, a green bar of soap, a hotel-sized bottle of shampoo, a pen and a notepad and two Lifestyles condoms.
According to KP there’s a multitude of reasons why one can become homeless, but the primary reason one remains that way is the lack of affordable housing in the region.
“Unaffordable housing is the main complaint amongst the homeless population,” he says. “What we get on OW and ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) is not nearly enough to get your own place.”
While KP says sharing expenses with a roommate is a possibility, security is a major concern and he hasn’t met anyone he trusts enough to live with.
“Even at the churches, I have to sleep with all my clothes on and my stuff under my pillow because people would steal them.”
But while KP may be selective about who he lives with, he says he’s not overly picky about his accommodations.
“Some people have an over-idealized view of what their housing should be. They’re not willing to accept sub-standard housing because they want something they used to have when they had an income,” he says. “But I’m willing to let that go and say all I want is a roof over my head. So what if it leaks? As long as it’s safe, substandard housing is better than living on the streets.”
As we navigate the quiet streets, KP stops to pick up the occasional penny and sift through trash cans. He comes across a half-eaten dinner in a Styrofoam container; he throws away the french fries but eats what’s left of the cheeseburger.
By the time we arrive at the Charles Street Transit Terminal, he’s back to searching for butts. At one point he’s down on his hands and knees and a passerby shoots him a dirty look.
I don’t think he notices, so I’m surprised when he speaks up.
“Most people are afraid and ashamed of homelessness,” he says. “People are afraid of what they don’t know, and they’d rather not see it.”
He says what upsets him most is the judgment.
“It bothers me because they haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins. They have no clue who I am or what I’ve been through.
“We’re human, you know? But we’re treated by some people like something much less.”
KP finds a battery-length butt and adds it to his Ziploc bag before crossing the terminal and continuing his search.
“I’ve shed a lot of values in the past few months, but I’ve maintained my core values,” he says. “I don’t look down on anybody, and I don’t want others to look down on me.”
Next week, see how Waterloo Region is responding to homelessness and whether or not it’s enough.