Panhandler's turn of fortune
Alex Blow used to be a panhandler-or a street beggar as he prefers to call his former profession. Since 1999 he has stood at the corner of Adelaide and York in the shadow of Toronto's bank towers from 6 am until 9:30 am. Until recently, his system of regulars, mostly "workaholic types, lawyers and so on," provided the means by which he bought his food and paid the market rent on his home of 15 years in a South Riverdale rooming house. There was no other income.
No fight left
The reasons Alex found himself on this corner are complex but not unusual. "Long before I started panhandling, I was in a bad state of mind and on a spiral down to the bottom rung," he says. "I worked, but my mind was going. I needed glasses to read, but I didn't have money to buy them." He became clinically depressed, developed social anxiety and then phobias and health problems. "I was just bumping along," he says adding that the final blows were three "rubber" paychecks, overdrafts at the bank, a failing relationship, and a feeling of complete helplessness.
"Probably the worst thing that happened to me is that I actually made an early success of panhandling. I was so successful covering my needs, I didn't have the incentive to fight in the working world." The first success trailed off and then Alex's health deteriorated rapidly. Not that he cared. "I was resigned to the fact that one day I was going to drop on the street and that was going to be it."
Karlene "rescues" Alex
Then on August 1, 2007, Karlene Bloomfield stepped into his life. Literally. She approached him at his corner and asked how she could help. She was part of a team of seven City of Toronto community workers that took to the downtown streets this past summer to help panhandlers who were housed to improve their lives.
"Karlene rescued me," says Alex. "She got me medical attention just in time. I was almost dead." With blood pressure of 230/90, kidney disease and diabetes, that is clearly not an exaggeration.
Re-connecting to services
Previous bouts of homelessness had deprived Alex of any shred of identification. Karlene expedited the critical process of getting the identification and paperwork necessary to apply for Ontario Works, to open a bank account, to receive a health insurance card, and a citizenship card. This was "a nightmare" that included going through landing records since Alex was four when he came to Canada on his mother's passport. Mindful of her client's need for fast medical attention and the limited time remaining in the summer-long pilot project, Karlene worked the phones and pulled on every connection in her extensive contact list. In close to record time, she was successful in directing her client to drug and transportation benefits so that he could start on the medications his doctor immediately prescribed.
Better health, more hope
About four months later, a clean and most presentable and articulate Alex can do things he hadn't done in years: sign his name, write letters, climb stairs, bend over to tie his shoes, walk several city blocks, read periodicals and sci-fi novels, use the internet, tell a joke. "I am feeling so much better," he says, showing a visitor a photo of an unkempt man with a navel-length yellow beard and very long white greasy hair who bears a distant resemblance to Alex today. "I'm not sure if it is the blood pressure medication, the anti-depression meds, or the food they're making me eat as part of an awful, bilious low-fat diet," he says. "But it's working." Alex is especially proud of his library card and regularly visits his local branch, as well as the main Reference Library at Bloor and Yonge, where he intends to sign up for an internet course. He's considering volunteering options as well, perhaps drawing on bookkeeping and accounting skills gleaned as a young and eager member of the workforce 25 years ago.
Once his health was stabilized, Alex cut back on his panhandling hours but says he still needed to be on the job. His rent took three-quarters of his income, leaving about $150 a month. He continued to panhandle for groceries and incidental expenses such as laundry and toiletries.
Alex on fire
Then, after close to nine years of what most would describe as really rotten luck, things started to click. Not only is he regaining his health, but Karlene called the other day with two pieces of good news: he had qualified for Ontario Disability Support Payment, which provides more income than Ontario Works. Also, on December 1 he can move into an apartment in a supportive housing building downtown, one that will cost no more than 30% of his income.
Almost as exciting for Alex: a long-time client, an executive with a company in the downtown core, has come through with an offer to volunteer several afternoons a week in his office. Alex sent his first email the other day.
And that means retirement from Adelaide and York.
A report on the findings of the City of Toronto's Panhandling Pilot Study will be provided to the City's Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2008.