Fathers, sons and brothers of George Street

DISCLAIMER: Once upon a time this semester, I wrote this 900-word feature on Seaton House for a class at the Ryerson School of Journalism. After multiple unsuccessful attempts at being published, this story found a home on this blog. Please note that this version is the second and final draft and was left untouched other than for a few corrections suggested by the professor who also doubles as a fairly celebrated feature writer.

At Seaton House, Thursdays are Personal Needs Allowance (PNA) days, meaning that it’s calmer than usual: most clients have money to spend and run errands. On the second floor at the end of a narrow corridor, three men are sleeping on the floor close to each other. They have a room and a bed, but perhaps old habits die hard. Or perhaps PNA days are like the typical days. “Boring,” says a resident.

Not many men stand in Seaton House’s yard, either, so people walking by Seaton House on Thursdays don’t see much. Not that they would anyway. There’s nothing to see, they think. Yet on any given night, about 500 men sleep at the emergency shelter at 339 George St. Most leave within a few days, but some stay longer. For them, Seaton House is often the last resort, and so it must do more than it should. It’s an emergency shelter, but don’t be fooled: its mandate is to serve homeless men over 16 years old, and in many ways that’s just the beginning.

Since it opened in 1931 on Seaton Street, the shelter has helped unemployed men. It moved to its current location on George Street in 1959, and became a year-round facility 20 years later. As many as 900 men might have then stayed overnight. That figure now stands at 540.

But less is still more for the staff. For one, the shelter is in the neglected George Street area. Shawn Yoder, the shelter’s program coordinator, remembers his first day working there. “Fourteen years ago, you’d walk on George Street at night, at midnight on a Friday night,” says Yoder, “alcohol was definitely the drug of choice.”

Crack and cocaine have replaced it. Boarded-up houses scatter the east side of George Street and litter blocks some alleyways; not exactly a welcoming sight as clients walk toward the black metal bars surrounding the shelter’s yard. When they reach Centre Island – the reception desk – clients register, and the shelter pairs them with a counselor. “The first day is making sure that their immediate needs are met,” says Yoder.

The shelter assesses the clients’ other needs on the second day. “A majority of clients who rely on Seaton House… have complex physical and mental health issues,” explains Patricia Anderson, manager of partnership development & support at the City of Toronto. Indeed, a 2009 City of Toronto report established that the long-term (i.e. over 28 days) clientele has a physical health condition, a diagnosed mental health condition or a substance use issue.

Because of that, Seaton House has expanded on its mandate of providing emergency shelter for the homeless. Dr. Tomislav Svoboda, physician at Seaton House since 1997, says that, “When you see that people are suffering the way that they are, you always try to do more.” Clients always are someone’s father, son or brother, as Seaton House’s motto goes.

Yoder says that the goal is “to increase the clients’ participation and their percentage of becoming successful in increasing their well-being.” To that end, the shelter implemented new programs in 1999. The first two floors of the building are the dormitory-style emergency shelter; from there, clients are directed to the most appropriate programs. On the third floor is the Annex harm reduction program, for homeless men battling alcohol-related or serious mental health issues. The transitional program of the fourth floor, says Yoder, is for older clients who are “more stable with health and their mental health issues.” Both the staff and residents of the shelter are friendly, and one resident jokes that, “This is like the Hilton for a lot of these guys.” Svoboda admits that a lot are friends and acquaintances. And there are bullies at Seaton House, but the key is not bothering them.

Yet, problems remain. The building is aging and the clients’ dorms need air conditioning. A flat-screen television or two are nice and so is a foosball table, but it takes more because the shelter’s new mandate has perhaps outgrown its current building. “The system has kind of become the system of last resort for some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people,” says Anderson, “because their needs aren’t being met elsewhere.”

Homeless men stay at Seaton House, because it’s their only option and just like that, the emergency shelter becomes a de facto long-term solution. That is wrong, thinks Svoboda. “That’s not what a shelter in our society should function as,” he says. “It’s become a warehouse for people who haven’t been able to fit in…or who were rejected in some way.”

Dr. Stephen Hwang, of St. Michael’s Hospital, has worked 15 years at the shelter. He thinks that, “In its current form, (Seaton House) doesn’t do what would be best, which is to get people out of homelessness.” Last year, the shelter housed about 300 clients and, with a City of Toronto plan to redevelop the George Street area sitting before council, that figure could rise. “People do well when they have options,” says Yoder. But for now, options remain only wishes.

Back in the yard, an old man is walking with a purpose; at Seaton House, he stands out.

“Hey man, what’s good?” Asks another client.

“Not much, just about to go smoke one.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, but just a roach.”

He soon picks up his lighter and starts the joint. PNA days, they call them.