Unfamiliar to Canada - Lack of Roofs

Article excerpt

Jackie Seymour doesn't have much more than her clothes, her friends, and her faith, she says, tapping her soiled fingers on a purple Bible. "We're a family here."

Life with her husband in their plywood shack is lived day by day, and it's a good morning when everyone fared well the night before. "Everyone's doing alright today," says Jackie's husband Doug, as he returns from his morning rounds.

Welcome to Tent City, a patch of industrial land in Toronto's port district where some 50 people live in homes cobbled out of scrap wood, donated "DuraKit" shelters, and anything that can be nailed to a two-by-four. Framed by a glittering skyline, the shantytown is a blue-plastic icon of a new social reality: Many of Canada's cities are beginning to resemble the ugly side of America.

Tonight, 5,000 people in Canada's largest city will sleep in shelters - five times the average number a decade ago.

"For Canadians, this is a big shock," says John Anderson, research director at the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. "We did not see this until this decade. Now, people are stumbling over homeless people in the streets."

Once considered a "nanny state" with generous public healthcare, education, and unemployment programs, Canada has been whittling away social spending for the past 17 years. In the 1980s, like the US and Britain, a new generation of conservative Canadian leaders began preaching the benefits of deregulation, privatization, and cutting government spending. If it was going to succeed in free trade, argued then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canada needed to level the playing field with the US by trimming the budget.

"The trends are parallel with the US, but there's a difference," Dr. Anderson says. "In Canada, you're starting from a more highly developed welfare state. So when you cut back, the effects are often more dramatic."

Now, as the cost of living rises and a housing shortage spans the country, the people squeezed are those on the economic fringe.

"The situation is very grave and getting worse rapidly," says Jack Layton, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the umbrella group for local governments. He estimates 1 million households are one rent check away from becoming homeless.

In Toronto, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,000 (Canadian; US$642). And nationwide, there is a dearth of units available - about one-third the normal rate.

"To rent an apartment in Toronto with a full-time minimum-wage job, you would require your whole pay check to cover rent," says Mr. Layton.

Of the thousands of homeless on Canada's streets, only 7 out of 100 are "chronic" - permanently unable to house themselves, says David Hulchanski, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and the author of several studies on homelessness. Everyone else is homeless for just a few nights or for brief periods, and the biggest segment of those is families. "You may be able to pay $600 or $800 a month on rent, but you just can't find a place for that price," Dr. Hulchanski says.

There are no exact numbers of homeless - only tallies of people using the shelter system. That does not include the estimated 1,000 a night who end up on park benches or here at Tent City. …