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Suburban homelessness is a problem often neglected in Toronto

Gunner was a regular at meals for the homeless offered by St. Timothy's Anglican Church on Sheppard Avenue East in Scarborough. The church's rector, Rev. John Stephenson, said he was a tall, jovial if sometimes dishevelled man with a drinking problem. Gunner was a nickname. His real name was Grant.

Dr. Stephenson said he always had a smile, but had a stormy relationship with a girlfriend. When he wasn't living with her, he found himself on the street.

Gunner did not appear when the church laid out breakfast on Wednesday.

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The night before, firefighters near Sheppard and McCowan Road saw flames coming from behind an industrial building. When they extinguished the fire, they found the body of a 49-year-old man in the ruins of a small hut.

Many of us associate homelessness with downtown streets, where homeless people can be seen panhandling, sleeping on grates or crowding into shelters. But Gunner's death should draw attention to an often neglected problem: suburban homelessness.

Gunner died in a bleak, windswept area near the railway tracks, far from the bright lights and tall buildings of downtown.

When Dr. Stephenson heard on Wednesday morning that someone had died, he took a carload of homeless men to the scene. They assumed they would be mourning another church-breakfast regular, Norm, who built the hut for shelter.

Then a call came through on the churchman's cellphone. Norm had turned up at the church, very much alive.

There was a moment of euphoria till they heard Norm's news: it was Gunner who had died.

Norm had taken Gunner in, letting him sleep in the back of the ramshackle hut.

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"To me it is a tremendous irony – a homeless person giving shelter to a homeless person," says Dr. Stephenson.

Police say that Gunner built a fire to keep warm. Norm heard screams as the hut was engulfed in flames.

A 2006 study by the City of Toronto found that, of the estimated 818 homeless people living outdoors in Toronto, 29 per cent were living outside of the city centre, in North York, Etobicoke or Scarborough.

The same study conducted in 2013 found that about 19 per cent of the outdoor homeless population was living in the suburbs.

"It is not a downtown Toronto problem. It is a GTA problem," says Dr. Stephenson. "I hear reports of homeless from Bowmanville to Guelph."

As downtown Toronto grows richer, he says, "the homeless are being pushed out."

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Yet most of the aid for homeless people is found in central Toronto.

The city operates nine shelters of its own, including four located outside of the old city of Toronto. But of the 48 shelters listed on the city's website, run by the city as well as other agencies and community organizations, only eight have addresses in the suburbs.

Dr. Stephenson says many homeless people in the suburbs don't want to travel to downtown shelters because they hear reports of fights and drugs. He says Gunner once told him he awoke in a shelter to find another resident trying to steal the boots off his feet.

Homeless people who stay in the suburbs often end up walking great distances in the cold of winter, Dr. Stephenson says. Some tell him they walk two or three hours to the church's meals. As a result, "TTC tokens become gold."

Stephen Gaetz, a York University professor who studies the issue, says that the things that drive people into homelessness – from family violence to mental-health problems to addictions to simple poverty or lack of affordable housing – happen in every kind of community, urban or suburban.

Many of those without homes in the suburbs are the so-called invisible homeless, who may couch surf or stay in temporary housing rather than live outdoors.

"One of the problems is that we concentrate our services in downtown areas and that gives the impression it is a downtown problem," says Prof. Gaetz, "and it isn't."

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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