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Homeless finding life hard in playground of Ontario's wealthy

All of Leonard Kloosterman's worldly belongings are crammed into the squalid little room at the Star Motel he has rented since January.

The treasured antique clock, a wedding gift to his parents, hangs on the wall next to outdated photographs of cherubic-faced grandchildren he last saw two years ago. His grimy table is littered with cigarette butts, food crumbs, and a half-eaten bag of potato chips. The narrow bathroom doubles as a crude kitchen, where two slabs of chicken roast on a portable cooker perched on the floor.

These four dreary walls are Mr. Kloosterman's home, a room he rents for $360 a month in a motel in Gravenhurst that once catered to the tourists flocking each summer to the picture-postcard shores of the Muskoka lakes.

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Muskoka, renowned for generations as a summer playground for the fabulously rich, with million-dollar cottages and country-club resorts in abundance, is suffering the ugly urban blight of homelessness.

Down the row of rooms, Mr. Kloosterman's neighbours are kindred spirits in homelessness who have turned these cramped quarters into miniature bachelor apartments.

"This is their home," says motel owner Louis Tsokas. "I have no rooms right now. I'm full. Even in the wintertime, I'm full."

"People can't afford to live anywhere else with the money the government gives them. And where are they going to work? There are no jobs in Muskoka." In a place where half the dwellings are summer cottages that sit shuttered for most of the year, there is a serious shortage of inexpensive housing for the year-round residents who scrabble for work in the winter and scoop ice cream for minimum wage during the bustling tourist season.

"It really boggles my mind when I think of how much residential stock we have and how little of it is available to people who desperately need it," says Susan Campbell, a community legal worker at Muskoka's legal-aid clinic in Bracebridge.

"I have fantasies of staging a squat of people at some of the cottages on millionaire's row on Lake Muskoka."

In contrast to the gritty streets of Toronto, homelessness here is hidden. No squeegee kids pounce from the curbsides and only an occasional mentally ill person is discovered sleeping on a park bench.

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But in the towns of Muskoka, low-budget motels are crowded with people renting rooms by the week, foisting motel owners into the unlikely role of untrained social workers. Other homeless people, dubbed by social-service workers as "couch surfers," are doing the circuit of friends' living rooms. Still others have resorted to sleeping in cars or tents.

With none of the big city's emergency hostels, the battered-women's shelter now doubles as a refuge for homeless families with no history of domestic violence.

"In the last couple of years, we've definitely had more homeless situations than we've ever had before," says Joy McCormack, executive director with Muskoka Interval House in Bracebridge. "There really is quite a contrast here between the haves and the have-nots."

It is a contrast that in the booming economy is becoming more stark.

Across the gravel road from grandiose lakefront estates are near-shacks that house some of Muskoka's poorest people. Of the winter population of 49,000 people -- a count that will triple after this weekend, with the return of the cottagers -- more than half live in the country, many on dirt-poor incomes.

The average yearly income in Muskoka is $22,357, about $5,000 below the Ontario average. Only a handful of industries provide jobs in Muskoka.

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"Name any community in the North that comes to mind and I'll guarantee it has lower unemployment and a higher average income than in Muskoka," says Gord Adams, district chairman of Muskoka.

"When people characterize Muskoka as a wealthy place without need of help, I get offended. We have wealthy visitors to Muskoka. But the people who live and work and raise a family here are by no means wealthy."

In Port Carling, a quaint little town in the heart of old-money Muskoka, real-estate agents are raking in record commissions in a cottage market never so hot.

"Our clientele now is the 30-year-old Microsoft millionaire," says Helen McNabb, a veteran of the high-end Muskoka cottage market. "And hockey players are spending big money on cottages. They have an incredible income."

The cottage market, she says, has "surpassed" the heady days in real estate of the late Eighties.

On the wall of the Royal LePage office in town are listings for cottages sprawling more than 3,000 square feet, selling for millions of dollars. One 6,000-square-foot cottage is listed for $3.6-million. A new 3,700-square-foot cottage designed in traditional old Muskoka style is going for $2.4-million.

Even a vacant piece of lakefront property sold a few days ago by Montreal Canadiens' hockey star Shayne Corson fetched close to $700,000. "It's crazy," Ms. McNabb shakes her head. "That sold within a week. And he got full price for it."

Only a few kilometres down the highway, in nearby Huntsville, Karen Therrien could be living on another planet.

For a few harrowing months, she lived as a vagrant after leaving an apartment where the floor was caving in and the lock on the front door was broken. She went to a friend's house, was unceremoniously evicted, flopped in motels for a while, and finally slept with her two teenaged daughters in her rusted car.

"You can sleep anywhere if you're tired enough," she says, then dissolves into tears. "Do you know what it's like to have two kids and you're supposed to provide for them?"

Now living in a dingy one-bedroom apartment she landed a few weeks ago, she sleeps on a worn, secondhand couch. Her daughters, 18-year-old Nicole and Stephanie, just turned 17 and expecting a baby next week, share a double bed.

Her rent, reasonably cheap at $425 a month before utilities, absorbs nearly half her monthly disability cheque. She has no telephone, a luxury she insists she cannot afford. Sitting on the stove is tonight's dinner, a box of frozen pizza from the food bank with a March best-before date.

"You can go anywhere in this town and see people like us -- [homelessness]is everywhere, but nobody wants to see it. People close their eyes to it," she says, drawing on her cigarette.

"The rich idiots come up here and they have all this money that they blow on stupid things. Why don't they blow it on something worthwhile? If they like Muskoka so much, then help out. If they don't want it to turn into a dive, then help out."

With no hostels to take inventory, no one can say for sure how many people in Muskoka are homeless or hovering dangerously close to it. What can safely be said is that apartments are further beyond the reach of poor people in Muskoka than they are in Toronto, where homelessness is rampant.

In a report on homelessness in Muskoka released last year, researcher Maureen Callaghan found that rents have climbed during the past decade at a time when tenants' average incomes have slumped. While rents are still lower in Muskoka than in the big city, with the going rate for a one-bedroom apartment about $600, a smaller fraction of the tenant population can afford them.

About one in four Muskoka tenants pays more than half the family income on rent, Ms. Callaghan found, while 23 per cent of Toronto renters do. Utility bills are high, with many apartments heated in Muskoka's frigid winters by pricey electric baseboard heaters. And often, tenants are required to pay a hefty deposit to the utility company when renting an apartment, over and above the first and last months' rent.

What they wind up being able to afford are apartments all too frequently in a sorry state of disrepair -- or out in the country, which requires owning a car.

"Some of the places up here are terrible," says Ms. Campbell at the legal clinic. "What you can pay for something called shelter is appalling."

With the long Victoria Day weekend here, room rates at some of the motels have gone up and at least one of the motel owners has evicted his winter tenants.

But not at the Star Motel, where Mr. Kloosterman, long, wispy grey hair peaking from beneath his cap and cigarette burns on his clothes, seems to be laying down roots.

"I moved into the motel in January with the idea that it would give me time enough to find an apartment," he says. "But I like it here. It's like having a family."

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