When Calvin Little died, no one noticed for a while.
For the last two years of his life, the 63-year-old Torontonian lived in a nondescript east-end apartment — alone, save for a rotating cast of animals he would watch for periods of time.
Little had lived inside the building since August 2018: a place for him to land after a decade of episodic homelessness.
He was funny, friendly and charming, those who knew him said. But he kept his past close to his chest. Sometimes, he’d disappear for a day or two, or venture out to panhandle in the Beaches. When he died, he died in his apartment, quietly and alone.
Neighbours were only alerted that something was wrong when a strange odour floated through the halls, police said. From there, they faced a challenge — no one knew how to find his next of kin.
On Nov. 5, nearly a month after his death was first discovered, police turned their fruitless search over to the public — issuing a rare appeal for information leading to Little’s family.
The investigator tasked to his case was puzzled. “Usually, it’s people in the building that give us good leads to the next of kin,” said Det. Const. Dennis Inniss.
But none he spoke to seemed to know anything substantial about Little’s life. They couldn’t find a phone book, and had no luck via doctors, social services or the public trustee’s office.
It took weeks of searching. Eventually, a spokesperson for the police force confirmed that Little’s next of kin was found.
But his case, according to the head of the agency that housed him, is an illustration of a broader trend.
“Throughout the city, vulnerable, older, single adults pass away, and too often, it’s totally anonymous,” said Mainstay Housing’s Gautam Mukherjee, adding that many who were once homeless were dying prematurely. “You see that here … it’s not just the hidden death, or the unacknowledged or unknown death, but also everything leading up to it that’s part of the story.”
Before Calvin Little, there was John Cunningham. And before him, there was Harold Dawes.
Each of the three men — Little in his 60s, the other two in their 70s — lived along the same streetcar line, and died at home. And each time, Inniss was tasked with finding their families.
More than a year after Dawes died in 2018, Inniss said police decided to try something new by issuing a public appeal.
Within a day, Dawes’s family was located. Deeming the tactic a success, Inniss asked police brass to do the same after Cunningham died in January.
The plea did coax out some people who knew him. Neighbours, speaking to Toronto.com, painted a picture of a loner: a limo driver who told elaborate tales but, like Little, kept his personal life private.
But none of the information led to his family, Inniss said. So in March, his remains were claimed by social services to be put to rest.
While police appeals are rare, unclaimed remains are not. Coroner’s data shows that, in 2006, there were 145 unclaimed bodies across Ontario. Last year, there were 438, and so far in 2020, there have been more than 630, though there were some carry-overs from last year’s deaths.
Separately, the number of Canadians living alone has risen from nine per cent of the population aged 15 or older in 1981, to 14 per cent in 2016. The data stoked concern about isolation and loneliness, especially among seniors, even before COVID-19 cloistered households away.
Innis wishes apartments would keep records of their tenants’ family contacts for these situations. Little was asked repeatedly to give an emergency contact to staff, Mukherjee said, but he always declined.
“We were it,” he said.
Little was born March 5, 1957. Records tell part of his story, but there are gaps that those who spoke to the Star couldn’t fill.
When his housing worker, Ben Kershaw, asked on occasion about Little’s past, he said the older man would brush the questions aside. “We have to respect other people’s way of life. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do,” Kershaw said.
Some of their tenants, he added, just wanted a fresh start.
By the time he arrived at Mainstay, Little had been well-known to Toronto’s Streets to Homes team for years.
To many, he was known as “Papa Smurf,” a kind man who would give his own clothes and belongings to others, and make dream catchers or carvings for those he cared about. He tried to make people laugh, staff recalled, and focus on what good fortune he had.
The Kingston Road unit was one of those strokes of good fortune. Kershaw remembers Little’s joy moving into unit 421, one of 136 bachelor apartments in the building. “He’d had enough of life on the streets. He wanted somewhere to call a home, somewhere to keep warm.”
The east-end site offers various supports in addition to shelter. It’s unique among Mainstay’s buildings in that it accepts new tenants, including Little, by referral from Streets to Homes, instead of just through a waiting list.
Little had been housed in at least two other locations before, between periods of homelessness — including in social housing. But it didn’t last.
At Mainstay, Little cared for multiple animals — at first a dog, and later a cat that scampered out when Little answered his door, prompting Little to hurry down the corridor after it.
He had challenges still. Inniss noted that Little battled cancer many years ago, and was in remission for five years before it returned again.
“He dealt with it better than I imagine I would, or most people,” said Kershaw. The diagnosis didn’t seem to dampen his mood.
To Mukherjee, Little’s death at just 63 years of age speaks to the toll that homelessness can take, even after someone is housed. In 2007, a Toronto street health report found that, compared to the overall population, homeless people were 20 times as likely to have epilepsy, five times as likely to have heart disease and four times as likely to have cancer, among ailments.
It’s unclear whether Little’s health challenges were connected to the periods of time he spent homeless, but Mukherjee has found himself wondering. The average man’s life expectancy in Canada was 79 as of 2017. Little’s death, he noted, was more than a decade premature.
Cancer and cardiovascular disease are the most common causes of death among older people who have been homeless, said Dr. Stephen Hwang, director of St. Michael’s MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, who described stark inequalities.
“The life expectancy of someone who is homeless is comparable to someone living back in the Great Depression, before we had antibiotics or pretty much any of the effective medical treatments that we have today,” he said.
Even if someone got into better housing and had more care, it may not be enough to undo the damage inflicted on their body — and their mind — during years of homelessness, said Dr. Sean Kidd, a senior psychologist with Toronto’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health.
COVID-19 may change things. Kidd expects it will take a year or two to see the impacts of economic instability and job losses on homelessness. But he also believes the pandemic has prompted officials to focus more on creating permanent housing, rather than temporary fixes.
“These are the things that will turn the boat around,” Kidd said.
Joe Cressy, Toronto’s health board chair, noted that public health data shows homeless men in the city living 20 years less on average than the overall population.
“Entrenching homelessness, simply sheltering the homeless, does not reduce the lower life expectancy rates — ending homelessness does,” he said.
For now, in far too many cases, people were dying without anyone to remember them, said Mukherjee. Toronto’s homeless memorial lists dozens of John and Jane Does for 2020 alone.
But Little won’t be one of them. To those who knew him, he will be remembered for the animals he doted on, the artwork he made for those around him, and his perpetual sense of hope.
“He was a really nice guy,” Kershaw said. “We miss him.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star