A “ghost wheelchair” commemorates Christine, who died on the streets. Photo by Deacon Robert Kinghorn

Where do all the homeless go?

  • April 28, 2022

The statistics are chilling even though they are imperfect. CBC reported that in December 2021, 35 names were added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial list of those who died while homeless in Toronto. The actual number of deaths could be higher. 

One of these deaths was more than a statistic; she was my friend. I have written about her in these columns since she was a regular downtown. Most weeks her eagle-eyed vison would spot me as soon as I turned the corner toward the intersection where she hung out. I can still hear her voice from her wheelchair piercing the evening gloom, “Deacon Robert, can you give me a push? I’m not going far.”

Her definition of “far” and mine often diverged by several hundred metres, but I could never say the journey was quiet or uneventful. She would talk, but never about herself. She would direct me, but never to her home. So, I never knew more than her first name, never did find out where she lived.

She was a fixture on the street, mouthy and with an acid tongue, but sometimes that is needed to survive. I have also seen her tender side when she would give her last cigarette to a stranger who stopped us. She had a substance abuse problem, which I only found out one night when I had pushed her a few blocks and she said, “This is far enough, my dealer is here.”

I quickly fled the scene in case I was incriminated in the drug deal. Add to this mental health challenges which plagued her all her life, and running away from home at 16, and you have the unholy trinity of homelessness, addiction and mental health problems that, for any hope of healing, must be treated as a unity. 

She lived a precarious existence at the downtown intersection, one usually occupied by addicts and people from a local homeless shelter. It was described in a local newspaper as, “A stretch of the inner-city that is beset by rooming houses and transiency, and so disappearances tend to go unnoticed.”

Crossing the street is a challenge at the best of times even for the able-bodied. In the dark or wet weather, the streetlights are barely adequate. It is a busy intersection, and as cars pull to a halt at the traffic lights, people go out into the middle of the road to beg for money. My friend had lived like this for many years. Several years ago, she had her leg amputated when she was injured at the intersection. She ended up in a wheelchair.

Her health seemed to be deteriorating. There were no more calls for a push in the dark. Her body hunched over the frame of her wheelchair, she looked up occasionally as she pushed along with the one leg dangling over the edge of the wheelchair. Then she was gone. Each week I expected her to re-appear, as many do on the street, with stories of adventures and misadventures. There was nothing. Then a few weeks ago, I came across a “ghost wheelchair” chained to a street sign. It was a painted white to indicate the location of a death.

I asked friends in the area if it belonged to my friend. She had been in the middle of the intersection panhandling when she was killed instantly by a truck that had not seen her. I looked in the local newspaper, which confirmed it was her and gave her age as 59. A lady who knew her said simply, “Her wish was to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everybody else.”

We seem to have lost the sense of society failing the poor, and we have few prophets singing in protest anymore. I came across one the other week named Huw Williams, and with his permission I quote from his song, “Some People Cry” in memory of my friend Christine.

Some people with no place to go
They have no Heaven, no arms to hold
They sell their bodies so there goes their soul
And some people cry

Some people are flying in the streets
Some people pass by in the streets
We should be dying of shame in the streets
And some people cry

Never really want to know
Where do people without a home go.

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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