Every day, Jeffrey Fraser sees Toronto Police cars whir by his home, a sight he takes as a reminder to avoid the choices and ills of his past.
He hops on his bike most days, and peddles to the downtown restaurant where he volunteers. When he returns to his west-end bachelor apartment, he falls asleep quickly, comforted to have a space of his own with a lock at the door.
Months ago, Fraser’s life didn’t look like this. His bed was among others in the basement of a downtown shelter, the first spot available after he’d been discharged from a Toronto jail. It wasn’t his first tangle with the justice system or homelessness. He’d cycled through a litany of shelters and lock-up cells for years, battling with mental illness and the trials of alcohol abuse.
He’s tried to get his life on track before, to stay on his medication and put his tumultuous past behind him. Trouble caught up to him each time. Now he’s hoping a new chance can interrupt that cycle.
“This is a make-or-break sorta time for me,” Fraser said.
In February, he was offered a coveted, modular supportive unit — the kind of space that tens of thousands of people are waiting for. Since arriving, Fraser has revelled in small luxuries: a proper shower, an easy sleep after years of broken rest. Creating a more stable life isn’t as simple as getting keys to a new home, but Fraser hopes it’s the starting point he’s needed.
“It’s really one day at a time,” he said.
In the last year, Toronto has opened its first two modular supportive housing projects, a new approach for the city in which the buildings are created in a factory and then assembled on-site. The effort is part of a plan to approve 18,000 new supportive housing units by 2030. More modular supporting projects are already in the pipeline, with two other sites and 124 units slated for development this year.
The buildings represents a change in course — a shift away from the city’s past approach where the strain on the shelter system would be alleviated by simply opening more emergency beds. That approach has come with a steep price, which has only gotten costlier since COVID-19 hit.
The idea, now, is to provide a path out of shelters for those who might otherwise be stuck — by creating affordable rental apartments with integrated mental and physical health supports, employment help, and other services. It’s a form of housing that Toronto has sorely lacked for years. The plan has required buy-in from all three levels of government, and city officials have faced skeptical neighbours and pushback as sites have opened on a quicker timeline.
“We’ve opened thousands of new shelter spaces since 2015, and yet still see a huge pressure on that system,” Abigail Bond, executive director of Toronto’s housing secretariat, told city councillors last summer, citing the mounting pressures since the pandemic began.
“It’s really important for us to now shift to housing as a permanent solution.”
And the outcome, they argue, for the residents of these units as well as the city, is worth it.
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Fraser, 54, was born at Toronto’s now-defunct Wellesley Hospital.
As young as 12, he remembers getting into trouble — clashing with his parents after learning he’d been adopted. And he’s long battled mental illness. Once diagnosed as schizophrenia, he says a doctor recently said he more likely had bipolar disorder.
He’s been no stranger to the inside of the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Sometimes he arrived on his own volition. Other times, he was taken there by police. After a stay around 2000, Fraser was offered his first supportive housing unit.
For more than a decade, it gave him some stability. He enrolled in a cooking program at George Brown College for students battling mental illness or addiction, telling the Star in 2006 that he now had a reason to stay on his medication and put his substance use behind him. “When I got sick, I lost all my confidence,” Fraser said at the time. “Now, I’m getting it back.”
But then things got rocky. He started drinking again, and lost his job at a bakery. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I made bad choices, I stopped taking my medication,” Fraser recalled. Eventually, he wound up in jail — and was evicted from that supportive housing unit.
That kicked off years of chronic homelessness, as he cycled through shelters, withdrawal centres and safe beds across the city. He had a basement unit for a while, but again wound up evicted. He amassed criminal charges for peering into women’s windows while wandering outside at night. It’s the mark on his record he’s most ashamed by, and he goes to a sexual behaviours clinic at CAMH now to try to address what happened.
The pandemic began when he was still behind bars for voyeurism charges. When he was released late last summer, Fraser says he started weeping — unsure of where to go. “I didn’t want to be out on the street right away, or all of them bad decisions would be made again,” he said. He found a pay phone to call his parole officer and find a shelter bed.
For roughly five months, he stayed at a site downtown. Life was rough inside, he said, though caring staff members made it more tolerable. Showering sometimes was hard, he said, as other residents smoked or used substances inside. He recalls seeing others dying from overdoses.
He started volunteering to keep from being idle. And when the housing offer came, Fraser leapt at the chance.
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The opportunity afforded to Fraser is not the norm.
Across the city, nearly 21,000 people are on a supportive housing wait-list, which has grown for years without reprieve. Last year, 2,793 people joined the list while just 185 were housed.
Gary Muirhead, a downtown shelter manager, says he’s seen hundreds of people come through the shelter who he believed could have a better life, if more supportive housing was available.
One was a 60-year-old man, who had been episodically homeless for years while battling alcoholism. He might have gotten his life on track if he had somewhere to start — but instead, he collapsed at the shelter and died of suspected pneumonia. He tested positive, too, for COVID-19.
Homes First Society CEO Patricia Mueller said one challenge to upping supply has been money. It’s easier to raise funds for homes aimed at populations such as women and children, she said; mental illness, addictions and criminal involvement are a harder sell.
“We serve the hardest to house, and it’s not the sexiest in terms of what people want to give for,” Mueller said. But she believes the cost savings alone make the benefits undeniable.
The average cost to operate a shelter bed in Toronto, normally more than $40,000 a year, has doubled since COVID-19 distancing rules have cut capacity. Supportive housing, meanwhile, costs the city around $24,000 per unit, per year. A 2014 study found that giving people housing with supports also cuts down on emergency room visits, hospitalizations and arrests.
“If you can’t care about it from a dignity and a compassion point of view, think about the money you’re saving,” Mueller said.
This year, the city has locked down federal and provincial funding for 1,248 new supportive units — some modular developments, others conversions of existing properties.
Neighbours aren’t always keen on new supportive developments. Residents near the first modular sites have expressed frustration to councillors with the speed of the developments. Near a proposed site in East York, neighbours have decried the possible loss of a parking lot.
“There are serious concerns about safety, vagrancy, property damage, drug and prostitution use. There is a Beer Store and a liquor store right on Danforth right beside this,” Coun. Gary Crawford (Scarborough Southwest) said of one of the modular sites in council last June.
Coun. Joe Cressy (Spadina-Fort York) believes some pushback stems from a misunderstanding of what supportive housing is, and conflation between that and homeless shelters.
He also acknowledged some ire at the speed of the new developments — but doesn’t believe they should slow down. “If there’s a tradeoff to be had between extensive community dialogue versus getting people off the streets and out of dangerous environments into safe and healthier homes, then I think you have to tilt the scale in favour of the latter,” Cressy told the Star.
Robin Sarniak, a manager at Fraser’s building, believes supportive housing attracts more attention in higher-income neighbourhoods like theirs — Trinity-Bellwoods — versus lower-income areas such as Parkdale. They had a community group for neighbours to raise any concerns with how the site is operating, though he noted that locals have largely been welcoming.
He’s encouraged by the new funding for supportive units, but noted that Toronto still has a long way to go. “I think it’s scary, really, that there’s so many people that obviously require supportive, subsidized units,” Sarniak said. “And we can’t, obviously, keep up.”
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Fraser compares his new home to an anchor. He might stumble while trying to get his life on a better path, but now he’s surrounded by supports to help steady him.
Some adjustments aren’t easy, like an 11 p.m. curfew. But after years of feeling like a number, having a home has let him feel more like a human again, Fraser said. He spoke warmly about keeping his apartment clean and swept. “I want to be accountable for this great thing,” he said.
He’s determined not to lose the home where he falls asleep effortlessly each night.
So, each day, he watches cop cars come and go from the station across the road.
“It forces me to look police in the eye,” Fraser said. “I remember that I’m just coming back from my job. I’m not going to get in trouble again.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star