Putting faces to homelessness

By Robert Rotenberg

Law360 Canada (January 26, 2021, 11:30 AM EST) --
Robert Rotenberg
I’ve been a criminal lawyer in downtown Toronto for more than 30 years, and during that time I’ve defended all manner of people, from the super-rich to the poor and homeless. Being a criminal lawyer has given me a unique, front-row view of the city. In particular, the growing economic disparity in Toronto, and the too-often unseen world of the homeless.

I highlighted this economic divide in my first novel, Old City Hall, which was published in 2009, and created a minor character who is in all of the books — a former Bay Street bond trader who ends up living on the street. Over the last three decades I’ve watched as the homelessness situation has continued to decay. Now, on any given night there are an estimated 10,000 people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Toronto.

Many of my long-standing clients are among those numbers. They drift in and out of jails and shelters, sometimes living under bridges, in ravines and encampments, always on the margins. Like most homeless people in Canada, their life expectancy is about half of that of non-homeless Canadians.

One of these people in particular has been a long-standing client and has had a profound impact on me. I’ll call him Jesse, not his real name of course. He’s been my client for more than 30 years, starting as a young offender thief, and cascading in and out of courts and jails ever since. We first met when I was a young criminal lawyer starting out, doing a lot of work in youth court, and he was a 13-year-old, pudgy, loudmouthed kid who just kept getting into trouble. I soon learned from his pre-disposition reports a few stunning facts: he’d been left in a phone booth as a baby by his prostitute mother; despite his bravado, he was still bed wetting; and he had an extremely high IQ, which over the years transformed into both his stunning wit and his tremendous ability as a thief.

As the years passed, he graduated from theft, to drugs, to drug addiction, to violence, including a prison-murder charge that was eventually reduced to manslaughter. I’ve visited Jesse in jails all over the province, but he’s always ended up back in downtown Toronto. Living on and off the street, one of 10,000 homeless statistics in the city.

Whenever he’s “out” he’s lived under bridges, in flop houses, church yards. Mostly he gets by as a thief, finding ways to get cash to supplement his monthly cheque. And our occasional meet-ups for “coffee,” which is code for me slipping him some cash, buying him some food and Tim Hortons cards. As he’s aged, and thanks in part to methadone, which has tempered his once-raging heroin addictions, he’s finally stayed “out” for a few years now. Jesse is extremely bright and a big-time reader. For my new novel about a serial killer murdering homeless people, he helped me edit a chapter about a woman’s homeless shelter, providing insight and sensitivity to these essential spaces.

I’ve also seen another, often overlooked, side of homelessness. The families and friends who homeless people leave behind: kids whose parent scoops their birthday gift money to buy drugs; grandparents forced to raise their grandchildren when the parents abandon them; angry ex-spouses and siblings, who watch helplessly as their previously healthy wife or husband or brother or sister steals from their own families and deserts them.

When I set to work on my sixth novel, Downfall, I created a fictional homeless encampment in the Humber River Valley in west end of Toronto, right next to an ultra-wealthy private golf course. It was my way of “showing, not telling,” in novelist speak, the financial chasm in our city. Then, my books being murder mysteries, a serial killer starts killing homeless women who live there.

From my perspective as both a criminal lawyer and a novelist, I see first-hand many of the causes of how we got to this sad state of affairs. I give some of these to the characters in the novel: the closing down of mental health facilities and the lack of follow-up community support; the downloading of public housing from the federal to the provincial to local governments; the institutionalized social network that has grown up around homelessness; the politicization of the issue; new and powerful street drugs; generational poverty; etcetera; etcetera.

The list is long, and the factors complex. Homelessness is a Rubik’s Cube of issues. It’s taken years for things to descend to this point, and it will take years to dig ourselves out. The COVID-19 pandemic has both compounded and exposed the city’s impoverished underbelly, even as Toronto grows richer by leaps and bounds. The chasm between rich and poor is growing larger all the time.

There are no easy answers, nor fast or simple solutions to the homelessness issue. I’m a novelist and a lawyer, not an advocate for any cause. I try in my novels to tell the unvarnished story of Toronto here and now. The one thing I know for certain is that stories have power and I hope that Downfall will help shine a light on the dark side of city life that cannot simply be wished away.

A regular contributor to The Lawyer's Daily, Robert Rotenberg has been practising criminal law for over 30 years, and is a co-founder of Rotenberg Shidlowski Jesin, a boutique criminal law firm practising in association. Robert is a graduate of University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, and the London School of Economics, from which he has an LLM. Robert is also a screenwriter, frequent public speaker, and the author of multiple bestselling novels, including Downfall (to be published Feb 2, 2021).

Photo credit /  Patcharapon Pachasirisakun ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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