DION OXFORD

Bonokowski

February 22, 2004
A voice for the voiceless

By MARK BONOKOSKI — Toronto Sun
“Here it is November, and there’s colder days ahead.”
— From a song by Hurricane Mike Thompson

Dion Oxford has seen the cold days of November come and go, and the colder days which reached into February.

He has heard all the official cold warnings put out by the city this month to urge the homeless to forsake their steam grates for the warmth of a hostel.

All words with no effective voice.

A few days ago, Dion Oxford was lying in bed — his wife at his side, their child in her crib — trying to come up with his own words about the poor.

As director of the Salvation Army’s Gateway residence on Jarvis St. — “The hand of God in the heart of the city,” the sign outside the hostel reads — he had been asked to speak at a recent conference of Christian agencies in this city who deal with the homeless and the disenfranchised.

The conference was entitled Voice.

“Why bother?” he wondered. “I mean, there already seem to be hundreds of voices out there speaking on behalf of the poor, and they all seem to be saying different things.

“If I throw my voice into the mix, wouldn’t that just complicate things even further?”

He reads the newspapers every day. In his own mind’s eye, he has seen The Toronto Sun — the so-called “right-wing newspaper” — write of how too much money for the homeless is being wasted on bogus programs, and how the homeless might find the going a little easier if they stopped drinking and doing drugs and went out to find a job.

It’s a voice he finds somewhat strident.

In his own mind’s eye, he has seen the Toronto Star — the so-called “left-wing newspaper” — write that the homeless problem could be solved if only more money were tossed its way, and then suggest that the shelters out there today are bad and dirty, rundown and unsafe.

It’s a suggestion that bothers him immensely, of course, because the Gateway is neither bad nor dirty, and neither is it rundown and unsafe.

“I have 40 staff who come to work each day, and work their butts off to bring hope to the poor,” he says. “And they don’t deserve to be publicly crucified by the media.”

And then he hears the voices of the local anti-poverty groups who strongly advocate a national housing policy, and then blow it all by saying nasty things about existing services, or by orchestrating violent demonstrations.

“Their answer to homelessness is the 1% solution,” says Oxford. “They suggest that, if the federal government delegates 1% of its total budget to homelessness, then the issue will be solved. Money would help, but not on its own.”

Dion Oxford goes home one night, and turns on the news.

The first story is about a black man shooting a white woman in a bar on Yonge St. The second story involves the shooting of a young black man by another young black man, and he wonders about the order of the stories, and whether one is judged more newsworthy than the other.

Next comes an update on the young Chinese girl who was abducted from her home, and he starts wondering if he should consider beefing up his own home’s security.

“I have a 1-year-old daughter,” he says, “and it would kill me if something happened to her. But what should I do?

“Install an alarm system? Put up a fence? Put up a ‘Keep off the grass’ sign on my front yard?”

He reflects on another news day when the Queen’s dog was attacked and killed by Princess Anne’s dog.

“I remember wondering that day, ‘Does anyone really care about the Queen’s dog when there are people dying on our streets, and the homeless are freezing?’ It was so ludicrous,” he says. “And so I turned off the TV and embraced the silence … too many voices coming at me and saying nothing … so much confusion.”

And then it hits him.

“The confusion. It has everything to do with the homeless. It’s the newspapers telling us what to think,” says Oxford. “It’s the television making us fearful of anyone who looks different. It’s the commercials that tell us we need an orgasmic shampoo, or an SUV. It’s never-ending.

“No wonder we don’t have time to think about things that really matter. The bombardment is relentless.

“And I came to the conclusion that homelessness, at least western homelessness, has everything to do with having too much time and too much money on our hands.

“So we worship it as if money were a god.”

There are days, of course, when Dion Oxford turns to the Bible for answers, although he confesses that it is the “most confusing book I’ve ever read.”

“Still, the Bible focuses a great deal on poverty and justice,” he says. “In fact, it’s the best book on poverty out there. It can’t be beat.”

What it says, in fact, gives Dion Oxford the inspiration to keep on going, to keep doing what he does at the Gateway, to sort through all the confusion in the newspapers and on the airwaves, and to give a speech when called upon to speak on behalf of the voiceless.

“The Bible clearly shows that not only is it our right to have a voice for the voiceless, and not only is it our privilege to have a voice for the voiceless, it is our responsibility to be that voice,” he says.

“The only problem is being heard when the nights are no longer so cold”
With a song on his lips and the hand of God on his shoulder, Glen MacLaughlin leans forward and lets the glory come.

“Open the eyes of my heart,” Mr. MacLaughlin sings, his voice rich with hints of tough times and tobacco smoke, belting it out with a dozen others in a small, candlelit room.

As the 60-year-old ex-con sways in his seat, the eyes of a Bolivian boy named David stare down from a sheet of paper posted on the pillar behind him.

While their eyes have never met, their hearts certainly have, in what seems an unlikely place: the chapel upstairs at the Salvation Army’s Gateway shelter on Jarvis Street.

The people who pray here are among this city’s poorest — yet each Wednesday, they scrape together enough money to support five-year-old David through a World Vision sponsorship.

For some, it’s a few coins collected on the corner; for others, a modest fraction of a government cheque, dutifully set aside each month.

For his part, Mr. MacLaughlin is more entrepreneurial: At his home in an east-end rooming house, he makes cigarettes with a hand-powered machine, sells them for a quarter each and donates the profits to David.

Wherever the money comes from, it sounds like an extraordinary effort, until you talk to the donors themselves.

They, of all people, know the meaning of need, and the difference a small donation can make.

“I’ve been there,” Mr. MacLaughlin says, looking serene after singing his heart out at last week’s chapel service.

“I know you can’t talk the talk unless you’ve walked the walk.”

The walk has been a long one for Mr. MacLaughlin, who turned up at Gateway’s shelter for men straight from the medium-security Joyceville Institution near Kingston, Ont., in December of 2002, after serving five years for crimes he’d sooner not discuss.

“I had a problem dealing with my own anger,” he says, adding that violence, booze and drugs were familiar companions when he was growing up in Cabbagetown.

He heard about young David when he started attending chapel on Wednesday nights, and found out people here had been chipping in to sponsor him since 2001.

“As unfortunate as my own situation was, his is even worse,” Mr. MacLaughlin says, nodding toward the pillar where David’s picture hangs.

The picture shows the boy’s face as a baby, but offers no hints about his life as one of six children living with their mother high in the Andes, in an adobe house with no plumbing or electricity, near Cochabamba, Bolivia.

According to World Vision, the children’s father abandoned them, leaving their mother to feed them on corn and potatoes she coaxes from the soil herself.

Gateway’s decision to sponsor the boy coincided with a shift in thinking at the agency that encourages clients to see themselves as having something to give, despite their own needs, says Dion Oxford, the executive director.

“We’re creating a group of needy people if all we’re asking is, ‘What do you need?’.” Mr. Oxford says.

“This is an effort to reverse that and give people on the street an opportunity to give, so they can get that blessing.

“It’s not rocket science, but it’s revolutionary in the way people think of themselves.”

Limited as it is to that small paper poster, David’s presence is nonetheless strong during the weekly service, where Rev. Ron Farr, Gateway’s casually dressed, guitar-playing chaplain, leads the tiny congregation through a music-filled ceremony.

They pray for people living on the street; for addicts; for the family and friends of a Gateway volunteer who died recently.

Then, they pray for the boy.

“Lord, bless little David,” says Eleanor Nielsen, 59, her eyes closed in solemn concentration. “You have blessed us with him, Lord, and we’re happy to have him in our little family.”

Like everyone else here, Ms. Nielsen knows a blessing when she sees one.

Her own life began to teeter 40 years ago with the death of her seven-month-old son, and toppled completely when her husband left with their young daughter.

She attempted suicide by drinking bleach and iodine, and later, by cutting herself all over her body.

“I’ve got a dead person’s skin on me,” she says, raising the sleeve of her sweater to point out the locations of skin grafts.

After losing her job as a nurse’s aide, Ms. Nielsen settled into decades of heavy drinking, which ended relatively recently, in 1998 — the year David was born.

Today, she draws encouragement from being able to help the “little, helpless” boy, and puts $2 in the plate for him each week, despite her own meagre income from a government disability pension.

That income leaves Ms. Nielsen just $40 to $60 to spend as she pleases each month, “but when I was out drinking, look what I was spending,” she says.

“If I can’t give $2 to a little child, something’s wrong somewhere.”

Before long, the construction cranes will begin moving in and, by year’s end, the Gateway hostel at the lower end of Jarvis St. — “The hand of God in the heart of the city,” as it bills itself — will be dwarfed, and virtually surrounded, by luxury high-rise condominiums.

This is not lost on the Gateway’s director, Dion Oxford.

The symbolism, after all, is somewhat profound.

Once those condominiums go up, what will then exist will be a picture postcard example of this city’s well-to-do looking down on its poor.

Both literally and figuratively.

In order to reflect that reality, Oxford has had a new slogan etched on the Gateway’s service van, and has ordered one, as well, for the hostel’s wall at the rear of the building before the condos block it out.

And the slogan reads as follows: “A hundred people live here. We are NOT a condo. Get involved.”

For Oxford, who has been with the Gateway all of its seven years of existence, the slogan is designed as a statement to the urban planners and the city’s politicians who, in his words, have “decided it is okay to glut the downtown core with condos.”

“If the city prioritizes people with money over those without, then it is not just,” he says. “If the city is hoping to push out people who are poor by making housing that is only affordable to the rich, then it is not just.

“And if the city is willing to sacrifice anything, including those who are poor, for the sake of adding new property taxpayers in order to get out of debt, then that, too, is not just.”

It is windmill tilting, for sure.

But maybe, just maybe …

“We simply want to remind people that those who live in our shelter are real people,” says Oxford. “Real people with real hopes and dreams and skills and gifts, and that they deserve to be treated as human beings — equal to everyone else despite the fact that they are poor.

“Our people do not deserve to be forgotten or overlooked.”

Over the years, I have been critical of how the city politicians have allowed the core-city blocks bordered by Gerrard to Queen, and from Church over to Sherbourne, to be over-saturated with social service agencies and their accompanying hostels, roominghouses, drop-in centres, substance-abuse clinics and domestic shelters.

In other words, there’s a “glut” there, too.

Build it and they will come applies to more than just a field of dreams. It also applies to the chronic abusers of the social service system.

But the Gateway, in my mind at least, has always been an exception. And it has therefore a warm spot in my perceived heartless soul.

It is called Gateway for a reason, of course. It is there as an entry point to open other doors for those men out there who find themselves facing a desperate predicament, and who need a little support, and a little time to regroup. And, despite what the public might think, it is not rife with crackheads and chronic alcoholics, at least not to the same dark depths as Seaton House to the north.

Of the 1,600 different men who passed through Gateway in 2006, 65% stayed less than two weeks, their homelessness short-term.

“Most of the men here have been forced to humble themselves for a short period of time,” says Oxford. “They lost a job, or they lost their marriage, and then just need some time to get back on their feet — just three ‘hots’ and a cot.

“That’s all they need.”

The Gateway’s annual overview always speaks volumes, and the overview of 2006 is no exception.

“The average age of those who came here last year was exactly 41,” says Oxford. “This is clear evidence that middle-aged men in our society have a very difficult time finding gainful employment and have been declared by our culture to be unemployable.

“This is the new modern-day famine.”

As far as Oxford is concerned, the facing change of homelessness in this city should be looked upon as a “startling statistic.”

“The housing and job markets are so fragile that most people experiencing homelessness in Toronto today are those who simply can’t find the means to pay rent,” he says. “They are working-class men who are trying to get by but need to humble themselves for short periods of time by living in a shelter long enough to get back on their feet.

“This flies in the face of the picture of homelessness that most of the media would have us believe.”

Through the Gateway’s housing workers, 174 men who arrived at Gateway were found safe and affordable housing — “a record for us,” says Oxford.

And that, in itself, goes against the stereotype.

In 2005, during the notorious Year of the Gun in which 52 died by bullet, Dion Oxford lost 10 “friends” who had passed through his door at the Gateway. None were shot, but all are just as dead nonetheless, just as they were homeless.

They did not die, however, from winter’s cold. Summer can lay claim to being the prime perpetrator in the killing of the homeless, aided and abetted by heat and dehydration.

No, as I wrote back then, rather than dying from winter’s cold, these 10 men died instead from a human coldness that runs from the cold heart to the cold shoulder, and to all the coldness in-between.

There was Paul Croutch, for example, a 59-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who was beaten to death as he harmlessly lay in his sleeping bag on his favourite bench near the Moss Park Armoury — allegedly by two army reservists now facing first-degree murder charges.

Last year, however, there were no violent deaths, but there were 12 men familiar with the Gateway who did die — mostly from what Oxford calls the “wear and tear of the streets.”

There was a memorial ceremony held two weeks back for one of those 12 — “Johnny,” as everyone called him, although his real name, Aston Romance, was much more exotic.

He had been found dead late last year in a George St. roominghouse, natural causes being the catch-all reason for his demise.

The 44-year-old Jamaican immigrant never took drugs, or drank or even smoked. But he could play street chess, and play it well.

For as long as anyone can remember — and Sun columnist Thane Burnett wrote about it well — Johnny lived on the streets until he strolled one day into the Salvation Army’s Gateway facility, which opened the door to opening the door that one day found him a home he could afford, even if it was only a room in a roominghouse.

The Gateway, for Aston Romance, was indeed the hand of God in the heart of this city.

Soon, however, it will be surrounded by what it is not.

It will be surrounded by condos.