Regarding the Shelter at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre

A screen shot of a tweet by @cityoftoronto. It reads, "The City of Toronto is opening 560 new spaces between November and April to help those experiencing homelessness through out winter services plan. More space at warming centres and enhanced street outreach will also be activated during extreme cold weather alerts." There is also an imge which shows a large, warehouse like room in which glass barriers separate cots. The rooms are about twice the size of the cots. The glass walls provide no privacy. The cots resemble lawn chairs and feature a thin mattress.

This letter was written in response to a City of Toronto press release. In it, we see a photo of the proposed emergency shelter at at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. This is being offered as a no-choice alternative to Toronto’s tent communities. I will be sending this letter to the Mayor and my council representative.

Dear Mayor John Tory,

I’m writing today to ask you to reconsider your current plan to house people experiencing homelessness in the Better Living Centre as it currently exists.

There is a word we come back to when discussing people who are currently without a home: vulnerable. And it’s a fair descriptor. Our homeless community includes a disproportionate amount of refugee and asylum claimants, physical and sexual abuse survivors, group home and foster care survivors, formerly institutionalized or incarcerated people, folks who were homeless as children, disabled and chronically ill people, Black, Indigenous and Persons of Colour, veterans, and members of the 2SLGBTQQIPA+ or Queer community.

When I say vulnerable, what I mean is that homeless people have inevitably experienced trauma—and they continue to experience the ongoing trauma of being discarded and neglected in a nation of plenty.

When Toronto proudly shared their vision for emergency overnight accommodations for the winter, it was clear that it wasn’t designed with the survival of vulnerable persons in mind. To suppose that all that matters is a roof and a cot is to ignore the crossroads of vulnerability that people exist at if they are homeless in Toronto. How is a rape survivor supposed to sleep in a glass box? How is a group home survivor supposed to find rest in a space where they have no privacy or autonomy? How is a residential school survivor supposed to accept this as a place to warm on a cold night when cameras, and cells, and security guards make it more like a prison?

People are not dry goods. A warehouse is not an answer. To re-traumatize already traumatized people is to lengthen the time it will take them to rebuild if and when they find housing. I know I’m still recovering, some 25 years later, from my experiences with homelessness in Toronto. I’m sure it costs more to address the after-effects of that trauma now than it would have to just make sure my rent was covered all those years ago.

You say you consulted experts to design this space, but perhaps you need to spend time—actual ongoing time—with the community members who will use it. They are the real experts in their own needs. I know if you sat down with me I would tell you that homelessness has its own gravity. Once you are close to it, an inordinate amount of strength is needed to pull away. Because of this, an inordinate amount, and quality, of resources must be provided. The bare bones approach changes nothing, save re-traumatizing vulnerable community members by relocating them to what looks more like a debtor’s prison than a community care centre. I implore you to consider this when you create spaces for your fellow human beings.

Thank you,
H. E. Casson

A New Proposal

A cement pole with 'could be fun' on it in black marker grafitti
by H. E. Casson
(CW: Pandemic, anxiety, mental illness, homelessness)

“I’ve made a deal with my anxiety,” I say to my partner.
He’s working from home, surrounded by screens. They are a living museum to all of the people he helps.
“What’s that?”
He doesn’t look up.
“I’m not going to worry about anything but keeping you and me alive and together.”

I’m a worrier, both by nature and circumstance. Before I knew him, I’d already been undone, been left unloved and unhoused. We met as teenagers and I brought him into the chaos with me. We lived nowhere, with fingers tangled together. We had no bed, but cushioned each other, blanketed each other, whispered good dreams in each others’ ears.

We sat on a balcony in a snow storm and we knew.
“This is good, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep”
“We’re going to get married, aren’t we?”
“Yep.”
That was our proposal.

Still, I do not live with a sense of security. This house we’ve since bought belongs mostly to a bank. They might remember its more theirs than ours. Everything is temporary. Clothes wear out. Food goes bad. Cupboards can go from full to bare to someone else’s in no time flat. We could have nothing, again. We could be nowhere, again. I get that. I have to get that. I can’t count on anything.

Except him. Our balcony-promise has lasted more than twenty years. I build fences around him. Make him wear a mask. Clean everything. Put my hand on his neck and search for any trace of fever. I can prepare for losing anything — but not him.

I know that modern people aren’t supposed to love like this. It says something about my autonomy, my self-worth. But I do. I love like hunger. I love like I’m incomplete without him.

I know something else, too. All this insecurity, this planning for the worst, this anxiety, it won’t keep back a virus. The numbers say we’ll make it, but the numbers have never been friends of mine.

So this is my new proposal: if I keep my word, and keep him and me alive, I will learn to revel in good. (Yes, I know that bargaining is a stage of grief, but what’s to be lost by pointing toward what fills me up?)

If we see the end of this together, I’ll believe that we’ll always have a roof. I’ll believe that we’ll always be fed. I’ll believe that only good days are coming. I’ll stand up to my knees in Lake Ontario and shout out my happy to the clouds. I’ll overspend on birdseed and tomato plants and comfortable shoes. I’ll drink hot cocoa in the afternoon and toboggan down high hills.

If we see the end of this, I’ll have faith in our joy.

Or at least, I’ll try.

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Like Cherries

My poem, Like Cherries, is free to read at Malarkey Books. In it I explore one of the best days my partner and I had while experiencing homelessness in Toronto. It seems the right time for it to come out, as we are all of us trying to find our own best days in hard times.

Be well, and enjoy the poem.

Home is an Anti-virus

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Homelessness, poverty, illness, neglect)

I am writing this in my home. I am writing it indoors, with heat and clean water, wearing washed clothes, my skin not itching, my partner’s voice rising and falling in the next room. I am safely housed.

This is true now, but for some of my life, it wasn’t. I’ve lived in an unsafe home, a group home, a shelter. I’ve crashed on couches. I’ve slept rough, slept in my school, slept in spaces not meant for humans. I was me, the same me I am now, but alone and hungry, frantic and deadened all at once. I knew I was disposable.

Over 20 years ago, I met a person who was precious and amazing. He was disposable too. I knew him for weeks, not months or years, but I think about him all the time. He was clever and challenging, generous and creative. He caught TB in a shelter. Because of the nature of crisis-friendships, I don’t know how he is now, or if he is now, but I knew him long enough to see him fall apart. I knew him long enough to learn that illness will always come for humans in shelters, in care facilities, in prisons, in mental health wards. As long as it stays in those boxes, we don’t hear much about it.

And what can I do? I tell stories from my own limited perspective, from this warm place that coats the memories in gauze, making them less sharp. I am here in my home, safe, at least six feet from the world.

What is home, in a time like this? Home is an anti-virus. It keeps us safe. Home is personal protective equipment, covering our most vulnerable parts. Home is an avatar of community care. Home is, and should be, a right.

The Pandemic Chapbooks to Support Charitable Giving initiative by 845 Press and Collusion Books includes a poem I wrote called For Chandrahas, Who is Likely Dead. It is about my friend, about illness, and about home. If you donate to a charity — any charity — you can get a copy of the chapbook for free.

There’s a charity in Toronto called Sanctuary that is taking care of people, members of our community, at great risk and in the most challenging time possible. They are doing this in the face of immeasurable hardship and loss. I hope you will consider donating to them, and to the folks they serve.

I wish there was a way to pull all this together, to end it in a way that is satisfying, but much like the situation, there’s no easy conclusion. There is no bow to tie, just a hundred, hundred loose threads that require a communal will and concerted effort to begin to gather.

In all this, I wish us safety. I wish us a thing called home.

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How to Survive Surviving a Crisis

(CW: Pandemic, poverty, unsolicited advice)

Poet and professor Orchid Tierney has organized a virtual reading series called Distāntia. She calls it “an experimentation with intimate social distancing through remote access poetry.”

My poem is about the value that people who are often forgotten bring to a crisis. The wisdom of survival doesn’t always wear a three piece suit. Sometimes it wears a Chewbacca onesie and hides out in its blanket fort, thank you very much.

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Food To Spare

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Food, hunger, neglect)

“You eat meat?”
She asked, incredulous
I said no
Then I said yes
Sometimes
I suppose
It feeds my gut
And teases my nose
It sits in my throat
And flavours my tongue
It’s comfort food
From when I was young
And mother would feed me
A chop so big
I forgot when I tasted
That it was a pig

But then, she cares
Her eyes are wet
She is a cow, in dreams
I’ll bet
(Just look at those eyes)
So I rationalize

That I was hungry for almost a year
(No politics for that, I fear)
An empty belly made me see
That I eat them
Or they’ll eat me

And lettuce didn’t fill me up
And orange juice didn’t please my cup
But a pizza pie with bacon strips
Pleased my lips

Reminding me of mother’s chops
The happy smell in butcher shops
And times when hunger was not there
And times when I had food to spare

Published in the Meat issue of (Ex)cite (2001).
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