Sasha Gray’s life was finally looking up again.
For years, she had struggled with homelessness, wrestling with her mental health and traumatic experiences from her past. She stayed in several Toronto encampments throughout 2020.
But as the year drew to a close, Gray had a space of her own at a downtown hotel being operated as a shelter by the non-profit Dixon Hall. She saw it as a real opportunity. As a transgender woman, Gray was on a path toward future surgeries, said long-time friend Nadine Casemore. “She was really, really happy, the happiest I’ve ever seen her,” she said.
But that serenity was fleeting. In the wee hours of Dec. 29, Gray was pulled from a blaze on the sixth floor of the Hotel Victoria on Yonge Street. First responders administered CPR, but she was taken to hospital in critical condition. She held on through the waning days of 2020, but died from her injuries on New Year’s Day.
The provincial Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the early morning fire. The fatal blaze capped off a year of heightened grief in Toronto’s shelters, as they’ve grappled with a historically high number of overdoses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The way that she went, it’s really difficult,” said Hotel Victoria supervisor Elizabeth Phili. She’s pored over a video that front-line worker Maggie Brown took of Gray singing, about a week before the fire. “How is it possible that today this person is here, and then she’s gone?”
Though Gray’s exact age was hard to pinpoint, she first came to Toronto from Ottawa more than a decade ago, according to Casemore, and worked for a time as a hairstylist — sometimes for film sets or fashion shows in the city. Gray seemed to her like a rock star back then, known to strut over and offer passes to some flashy event or other.
Gray was a source of guidance and support, too, Casemore said — the kind of friend to remind her it was alright to make mistakes, and remind her she was trying her best.
But several years ago, Gray began to struggle with her mental health and keeping a roof over her head.
While staying at a respite site for about five months in 2019, Gray told David Reycraft, Dixon Hall housing services director, that it was the longest she’d slept indoors for years.
Reycraft ran into her again in the summer of 2020, while she was living outside The 519 community centre, and checked in with her several times before she came to the hotel.
Being transgender on the street meant being particularly vulnerable, Reycraft said — though he didn’t doubt that Gray would take care of herself fiercely.
According to the city, three per cent of the people its Streets to Homes team interacts with in camps are transgender or non-binary.
“There’s an overrepresentation of the LGBT community in the homeless tally,” Reycraft said — an assertion backed by a 2018 street needs assessment in Toronto. “Those of us who work in this field understand the reasons for that, related to people’s stigmatization and the homophobia, and those challenges that lead people to find all kinds of complicated ways of coping that might lead to drug use, and drug addiction, and all of those things.”
Gray used a variety of narcotic drugs “very frequently,” said Brown, the front-line worker.
But to Reycraft, Gray seemed to be using less frequently at the end of 2020. The last time he saw her was one evening shortly before Christmas. She told him how ecstatic she was that New Year’s Eve was coming, and spoke brightly about her plans to celebrate the occasion.
“It just never got to that,” he said, quietly.
Those who knew Gray describe her in contrasts. She was “street tough,” but well-liked by those around her, said outreach worker Doug Johnson Hatlem.
Phili, the hotel supervisor, recalled a heated argument between the two of them, but also Gray’s sincerity when she turned up to apologize.
“That’s something I loved so much about her,” Phili said. “She would say, ‘You know what? The world is so small. We have to take care of each other.’”
She advocated for people, and defended them, Phili added.
Gray often took the fall for others who got into trouble, Brown recalled. “We knew darn well it wasn’t Sasha,” she said, chuckling.
Their memories of Gray now come back in moments, from her perched outside playing guitar in the summer, to strutting downstairs in 7-inch heels to ask their opinion on wigs. “She was Dixon Hall’s supermodel. She was just fun, spirited, loud, full of energy and full of life,” Brown said.
To Casemore, her friend seemed to have “finally sort of figured it out,” in the months before she died.
“I wanted more of that for her. I wanted her to have a lifetime of that: a lifetime of feeling secure, knowing who she was and feeling good about it,” Casemore said. “I am very happy she did get to experience that — even for a short time.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star