This cancer patient spent the pandemic in a Toronto shelter. Here's how she finally got the city to help

·5 min read
Lisa was living in a shelter until a few days ago when when she moved into a rent-geared-to-income apartment in Toronto. (Paul Borkwood/CBC - image credit)
Lisa was living in a shelter until a few days ago when when she moved into a rent-geared-to-income apartment in Toronto. (Paul Borkwood/CBC - image credit)

For Lisa, the toughest part of living in a Toronto shelter while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer during the pandemic wasn't the noise or lack of privacy or worry she'd get sick with COVID-19. It was the fear she'd never find a home.

Three years ago, Lisa said she lost her apartment and was left with no other choice than to live in a shelter with up to 100 others — the city's temporary housing solution for the thousands of people experiencing homelessness at any given time.

Health problems and then a late-stage breast cancer diagnosis meant Lisa could no longer work and the government assistance she received wasn't enough to cover her rent, even with roommates, she said.

CBC News has agreed not to use Lisa's full name as she fears the stigma attached to homelessness will affect her in the future.

"I used to take pride in the fact I was able to work and take care of myself," Lisa, 49, said in an interview. "But when you're homeless, people look at you differently, like you're a loser. They don't understand how complex it becomes."

Thousands of people in Toronto are living in the city's shelter system and spending years on waiting lists for permanent housing. Lisa's experience demonstrates how even in desperate situations, including cases of serious illness, people experiencing homelessness often have little hope of quickly getting the housing they need.

It wasn't until she met a case manager at a park encampment this spring that she got the help she needed. She moved into a rent-geared-to-income unit, run by a non-profit organization, a few days ago.

On housing wait list for 8 years

Lisa received her cancer diagnosis in 2020 and throughout the pandemic, she has gone for weekly treatment at a hospital, she said.

Sometimes during the day, as the shelter staff cleaned, Lisa said she'd ask for special permission to lie down as the chemo's heavy side effects washed over her. At night, she'd always be slightly alert, in case arguments or fights among other residents broke out around her, but she eventually learned how to tune it all out.

Lisa said while living in the shelter, she tried repeatedly to get caseworkers to help her find rent-geared-to-income housing. Close to a decade ago, she had put her name down on that wait list on the advice of a friend who said, "you never know how life changes."

However, even after her cancer diagnosis, the pandemic began and her doctor wrote a letter underscoring her need for housing, she said city staff told her there wasn't anything available for her — she'd have to wait her turn.

"It can be very frustrating," Lisa said. "When so many workers are telling you there's nothing available, you think, 'Well what do I do now?' You could give up very easily."

The City of Toronto told CBC News more than 78,000 households are on the the wait list for subsidized housing and the wait is at least seven years for a bachelor and 12 years or more for a one-bedroom apartment. It said it does prioritize people who are terminally ill and have less than two years to live.

The city said it has taken "unprecedented action to assist those experiencing homelessness since the start of the pandemic." That includes leasing hotels and creating more supportive housing units so people can physically distance.

It acknowledged, however, that while more than 6,600 people have moved from the shelter system to permanent housing throughout the pandemic, many more are losing housing.

"The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the opioid overdose crisis, has further magnified the issue of homelessness and the urgent need to work together for permanent housing solutions to protect the health and well-being of this vulnerable population," the city said.

'Heartbreak on repeat'

Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of the University Health Network's department of social medicine, said experiences like Lisa's are "heartbreaking" and not uncommon.

"When you think about the thousands of people experiencing homelessness, it's heartbreak on repeat," Boozary said.

Submitted by the University Health Network
Submitted by the University Health Network

He's long advocated for universal housing, arguing it's integral to the health-care system, and needs to be supported by all three levels of government. Every health outcome and condition whether it be mental health or cancer worsens when someone doesn't have housing, he said.

"We have to reckon with what we're going to do as a society to address systemic discrimination to the max that continues to punish and siphon away life years."

Found help at encampment

This spring, the encampments in parks across Toronto caught Lisa's attention. She said she heard the city's Streets to Homes workers were stopping by two to three times a week. After spending some time at the Lamport Stadium encampment, she met a caseworker who was able to help.

The city said its outreach workers make it a priority to get all people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing, whether they're living in shelters or encampments.

But Lisa said for the first time since her experience with homelessness began, it was at the encampment where she felt she was being heard.

Paul Smith/CBC
Paul Smith/CBC

About four months later, she's signed a lease for a rent-geared-to-income apartment, run by a non-profit organization, in downtown Toronto.

"I really just got lucky," Lisa said. "It was perfect timing with meeting the right worker at the right time with the right availability."

She said she feels both relief and anxiety about living on her own. After getting used to the noise of the shelter, she's adapting to the quiet, filling her apartment slowly with furniture and raising money through a GoFundMe campaign.

"I find myself coming to the park sometimes just to hang out, to have that community."

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