For months Canadian fantasy author Caitlin Sweet and her husband, sf writer Peter Watts, had a homeless man living in the ravine behind their house in the east end of Toronto.
Last week Sweet shared their experience on Steve Paikin’s nightly TVO program, The Agenda, viewable on YouTube. (Air date: December 15.)
City living includes all kinds of unexpected encounters. But it doesn’t usually include having someone take up residence in your backyard. That is what happened to novelist Caitlin Sweet, giving her a glimpse into the world of those in this city who regularly navigate Ontario’s very complicated mental health and shelter system. The Agenda welcomes Sweet to learn more about her experience.
Sweet also wrote a long article for the TVO website — “What to do about Kevin: Demons, little fires, and the man who lived in my ravine”.
For months, he lived behind my house. He was friendly and well-educated. He loved his cat, Blueberry Panda. He shouted at demons and started fires. I wanted to make him get help—shelter, medication, support. But this is Ontario
We call 911 on a rainy night in October. Kevin’s in our yard again, though he promised us he wouldn’t be. He shouts that he’s alone with Blueberry Panda (his cat) on the surface of a giant sun, and nothing else exists in time or space and only he, almighty, can harness the power of this sun for the purposes of destruction.
The paramedics arrive after five minutes, and the first police car a couple of minutes after that. Others follow. Just like two weeks ago.
Six officers, all with flashlights, tromp along the narrow, overgrown path that leads to the back of the yard at our house in the east end of Toronto. Kevin’s hunkered down with his sodden sleeping bag over his head, rocking, looping, round and round.
“Kevin—let’s get you up,” one of the officers says. “Let’s get you somewhere dry.”
“No,” he snaps, briefly free of the loop. Then he resumes: “You are not speaking English. Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown location because we are the only creatures in all of time and space. Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown—”
He’s standing now. His wild, curly hair and beard look even wilder in the glow of the flashlights; his brown skin looks grey.
In the end he goes with the officers quietly.
…. At 3 a.m., long after Kevin leaves with the cops, the phone rings. It’s a frontline worker from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; she tells us Kevin has just been sent away in a taxi, having not been assessed or medicated. He was lucid again by the time someone at the ER had spoken to him. He answered their questions. He got in the cab. He’s supposed to end up at a shelter.
He’s back at our place six hours later, calling for Blueberry Panda.
…The first time Kevin was taken away, I thought everything was going to get better—I was convinced that professional and qualified people would be looking after him from then on. That was before I learned about Ontario’s rules for involuntary admission.
It works like this: Someone (typically a police officer) sees a person exhibiting signs of mental illness and decides they should be taken to hospital. At hospital, that person is examined and assessed. If various criteria are satisfied, the examining doctor can fill out a Form 1—that is, an application for psychiatric assessment—which allows the hospital to hold the person for up to 72 hours, without legal review.
…Back in September, Kevin started shouting in the middle of the night. He explained later that he could see the demons most clearly after dark. Shouting was how he banished them. So we’d lie in bed, listening to him shout the demons away.
One night, he sang instead: first Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” then Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Another night, we looked out the window and saw flames: Kevin had made a fire. For a few moments the flames leapt high, toward the rain-soaked trees.
We didn’t call the police; we wanted to avoid involving law enforcement, if at all possible, as we’d read too many stories about Toronto cops and their sometimes violent interactions with mentally ill people. So who were we supposed to contact?
I sent our city councillor a long, wordy email that boiled down to: Help. We don’t want anything bad to happen to this man, but he’s mentally ill and now he’s making fires in our yard and he won’t go anywhere without his cat and please help. I got a response from a staffer a few minutes later: she said she’d refer the issue to someone from the city’s Streets to Homes program. She thanked Peter and me for being such caring people.
Five days later, I’d heard nothing more, so I emailed our councillor again, and again I received a quick reply: she’d follow up with the city. She’d keep me in the loop. Thanks again for all we were doing.
I didn’t hear from the councillor’s office again, and I never heard from the city….
Peter Watts also blogged about it – “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.
A few nights back I found myself standing out in the rain at 2 a.m., peering through the fence to see if the fire Kevin had lit was in danger of burning down our shed or setting the ravine alight. It wasn’t; but obviously the guy needs help. I just don’t know if the current system can give him any. In terms of mental health this place has gone to shit ever since the government decided to cut costs by classifying everyone as an outpatient. It’s a lesser-evil sort of thing.
Gateway guy has made no progress; Big Cop (Officer Baird, I learn later) approaches me and says, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. You don’t know me, you’re judging me by the uniform. I’m honestly trying to help this guy; you say you have a relationship with him? Maybe you could try talking to him?”
“Well, sure,” I say, suddenly feeling like kind of a dick.
We go back to Kevin’s tent— my tent, until I gave it to him on the condition that he stop screaming death threats in the middle of the night (or at least that he make it really clear that those death threats were not aimed at us). I remember he smiled when I said that, looked kind of rueful. Now that I think back, though, I realize he made no promises.
He’s originally from Trinidad. Speaks with this cool accent. Back in the nineties he earned a degree from the University of Toronto: dual major in chemistry and philosophy. How cool is that?
Now he huddles half-naked in the woods, and rages against monsters at three in the morning….
Sweet and Watts were actually able to get Kevin into the only shelter that allows pets, by incredible persistence. Sweet wrote on her blog —
There’s room at the inn. I’ve called every couple of hours, as the front desk person told me to weeks ago. And at last, at last, a bed at the Bethlehem United shelter for Kevin, and a place for Blueberry Panda with him.
I’m at work. Peter hurries to the ravine and tells Kevin. Peter rents a Zipcar and hurries to pick it up at a Canadian Tire sort of near our house. When he gets back, Kevin is starting little fires. There’s no Blueberry in the carrier. “She got upset,” Kevin says. “She ran away. I can’t go without her.”
Peter yells at him—articulately, I’m sure. He convinces Kevin to put his stuff in the trunk and himself in the front seat. Drives him to Bethlehem United, way north-west of our place. He tells me later that Kevin was conversational.
He drops Kevin off at the shelter. Promises to bring Blueberry Panda as soon as we can wrangle her (which will be hard; she gets skittish when Kevin’s not around). We don’t catch her that day or the morning of the next—but that’s OK, because Kevin comes back, of course, swearing he’s going to get her into that carrier this time; swearing he’s going back to the shelter. He’ll be gone before 4 p.m., he tells Peter, who tells me that he doesn’t believe him. But when Peter goes out onto the porch at 4, Kevin’s stuff is gone. The carrier’s gone. He calls the shelter; yes, Kevin showed up, carrier in hand.
We call for Blueberry one more time that night, as we put out kibble. Just in case.
I wake up at 5 because I think I hear him across the fence. “Did you hear that?” I whisper. “Yes,” says Peter. But in the morning there’s no sign that anyone’s been there.
If people wish to support the only pet-friendly shelter in Ontario, click the link — Bethlehem United Shelter.
Several years ago, Fred Victor and Street Health presented a photo-journal study at a national conference on homelessness in Toronto on the role pets play in the lives of people living on the street. They called the study, Paws for Thought. We found out how important it was for people to stay connected to their four-legged friends when everything else seemed to have been taken away from them.
So, when, Fred Victor got involved in opening a new shelter in northwest Toronto (Caledonia and Lawrence), everyone agreed that pets should be welcomed into the shelter with their owners. It is the only pet-friendly shelter in Toronto. By creating this unprecedented access, Fred Victor has kept close to its mandate of meeting the needs of people who would otherwise spend a night on the street.
[Thanks to JJ for the story.]