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For the first time in well over 15,000 consecutive nights, I will not have a roof over my head this evening. I don't know where I will sleep, how I will eat tonight or where I will shower, shave and dress tomorrow. I have no idea where - or whether - I'll be safe or how to stay safe.

homeless man

Canada has a magnificent social safety net in place to help people in my position, much better than if all of this happened to me back home. But it seems to take forever to get into the system unless you are a child, or are physically or mentally disabled in some way. Thanks to the great care I received from Dr. Ho, the traditional Chinese medicine doctor who treated my cancer, and everyone involved in my post-accident rehabilitation, I am neither a child nor disabled.

Early Tuesday morning, I went to a Salvation Army shelter to sign up for a room last night. By the time I was able to snake my way in the line and reach the desk, all of the rooms were taken. The man registering people for the night said that the other shelters were filled, as well. There are too many people in my position - if for perhaps different reasons - for the number of available beds.

Welcome to where The Great Recession is a daily reality.

Standing in line, I glanced around a bit - protocol dictates that no one makes eye contact with anyone else, unless they're already friends, so I tried to give short looks from behind my sunglasses - and was startled at who I saw waiting with me. Yes, there was the expected assortment of down-and-outers, vagabonds and derelicts, but most of the men were shaved with neatly trimmed financial district haircuts, wore clean and pressed clothes and had decent shoes on their feet. But it struck me that a lot of my fellow charity cases had one thing in common: Their faces reflected the terror of the unknown that comes with not knowing how we'd cope with the next 24 hours. I'm sure the exact same look was written broadly across my mug, as well.

As we shuffled out of the shelter, disappointed and disillusioned, I spotted the guy who had been directly in front of me in line. We were both waiting for the light to change so we could head for the shade of the University of Toronto's main campus. The irony wasn't lost on me: I was surrounded by students who were just starting out, as I had once done. Not one of them was even considering the possibility that regardless of how well they do in life, time and circumstances may conspire to put them back the corner of College Street and McCaul - but on the other side of the road at the shelter.

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We exchanged a kind of nonchalant shrug, a brief shared moment of mutual frustration or something. I hoped he would say something, but the light changed, we crossed and headed in a different directions.

He was about 15 years younger than me and I wish I knew how he'd found himself at the Salvation Army this particular morning. What fickle roll of the cosmic dice landed him on the outside of life looking in? He certainly didn't look like someone who'd been living on the streets out of choice or addiction or mental illness. Maybe I am playing mental gymnastics with myself but it struck me that our stories might not be all that different. Everything was sort of ticking along and then, whammo! I know from much-too-personal experience that things are seldom as they seem.

A few friends call on my cell to check in and it's nice to reconnect with the world, however briefly and from whatever difference. The third call, though, brought relief: A night's reprieve because I could stay on at the apartment I'd been borrowing for the past several weeks for one more night. A flight was cancelled and so the relatives from Europe who'd been promised free use of the flat during their vacation in Toronto would not be arriving for another day.


I walk uptown for a half hour to the building, go in and breathe a deep sigh of relief for another day.

Charley James

Charley James is an American journalist and writer who lives in Toronto. His memoir, "There's A Monkey In The Yard!" is due to be published next summer.

Posted: Wednesday, 30 May 2012