By Jim Sanderson
Now that he is no longer in the park, I can tell you his story. It is a cautionary tale that reminds me, even in these uncertain times, how fortunate I am to live in a comfortable place in our neighbourhood by the lake.
I first encountered Gord a few years ago, long before COVID-19, The Proud Boys, and vaccine shortages had hit the headlines, on a walk from the eastern beach out to the lighthouse in mid-September. I noticed a patch of colour in thick vegetation beside the lagoon, and after a closer look, I realized it was a small green tent that was all but hidden from the pathway and the water. Aware that people sometimes camped in the park, especially during the warmer months, I continued on my way. About a week later, as September turned to October, I passed the place again. To my surprise, I saw that the tent was still there. This time, there were clear signs that it was someone’s home. More curious than ever, I returned a few days later and encountered its inhabitant sitting by a little fire. Like many street and park people, Gord looked older than his years, had a straggly grey beard, rough weather-beaten features, and clothes to match. He responded cautiously when I said hello.
“You’re camping out?”
“Guess so,” he answered.
So began a relationship that would last longer than I expected. On subsequent expeditions to the lighthouse, I spoke to Gord a few more times and learned he was planning to stay in his camp all winter!
“Won’t it be cold?”
“Probably,” he answered with a grin, exhibiting that mix of resignation and stoicism I had seen in the few other street people I knew. As the days continued to grow shorter and colder, I sometimes encountered Gord on the Brimley hill and gave him a lift if I was going his way. These rides led him to open up a little more, but not much. At least, he did not seem to regard me as a threat. On our trips up to the grocery store and Timmy’s, I stuck to easy topics like the weather, the coyotes, the surfers, and the lake. That December, as snow began to fall, I was inspired by the Christmas spirit and left a yellow ‘No Frills’ bag of groceries at the entrance to Gord’s camp.
As winter deepened, I was happy to see that the temperature remained unusually mild. Gord heated his dwelling with a small stove and little cans of propane from Canadian Tire. By the time March rolled around he was still there, alive and well, and looking forward to warmer weather. I suspected the p ark officials were aware of his camp, but, to their credit, left him alone.
Then, after a pleasant summer and fall, another winter loomed. This one, however, was predicted to be harsh. Sure enough, the weather climaxed at the end of January with a brutal cold front, temperatures dropping to 30 degrees below Celsius several days in a row. On more than one of these frigid nights I looked out my windows over the frozen park and lake, then back at the logs crackling in my fireplace. I wondered about Gord and all the other people like him in our city. Before I could get down to check on his camp, a big nor’easter blew across the lake and dumped almost two feet of snow on the bluffs a day later.
As soon after the storm had cleared, I drove to the park and made my way along the lighthouse path, to encounter a worrisome sight. The little green tent was buried by deep drifts of snow and around it I saw no signs of life. There were no empty propane bottles, food packages or cans. There wasn’t even a footprint in the snow. I called out a few times, but there was no answer. I tried brushing off the tent, but soon realized that digging it out was a substantial job that required a shovel. Deep down, I also worried about what I might find inside.
During the next week, I monitored local news channels, the Toronto Police Twitter feed, and community internet sites for information about fatalities in Bluffer’s Park. None were reported.
That April, when the bluffs and other green spaces in Toronto started coming back to life, I ventured out to Gord’s camp again and saw that every vestige of it had had been removed by park workers, a job that could not have been easy or pleasant. I continued to the lighthouse and sat by the waves. I wondered, as I have many times ever since, what became of Gord. Did he wind up in a shelter? Find a new place to camp? Leave the city? Had he even survived? After all, the life of a person with no home in any city is precarious. Now, a few years later, I have learned that more than 10,000 people in Toronto sleep in parks, streets, and shelters every night. Shelters are filled to 98% or 100% capacity, and almost 40% of all street and park people remain homeless for more than a year. As I consider these facts today, and think about Gord’s camp, I realize that his tale has taught me a lesson – that any assistance I can offer to someone who is a little less fortunate than me, is worth the effort.
Thank you Gord.
~ Jim Sanderson is a local resident, and the author of Toronto Island Summers, and Life in Balmy Beach.