Posted May 18, 2018
Toronto Star: This great-grandmother was forced from her home of 31 years. Hers is the face of a broken public housing system
Edna Rose is exhausted.
The great-grandmother is piling everything she owns into cardboard boxes while a large white moving truck parks outside next to her beloved garden where decades ago she planted peach and nectarine trees, then later flowers in honour of family.
A cast-iron skillet she brought with her from Jamaica almost 40 years ago and a worn metal pot good for making rice and peas for a crowd go into a box. So does a bottle of white wine from her son’s wedding — never opened in the house of a God-fearing Mormon — and many framed photos of her “great-grands.”
The 76-year-old then takes a step up a wobbly ladder near the ground-floor window to pull down lacy drapes that have yellowed in the sun.
“I am climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” Rose says as she inches her way to the top.
“If I fall don’t catch me. Just let me die.”
On this October day, the “nana” to more than 70 grandchildren and great-grandchildren is moving out of a two-storey townhome in a block of public housing in the Firgrove community near Finch Ave. and Jane St.
This has been Rose’s home for more than 30 years.
Her townhome unit, No. 111, is being shuttered for good, as are 133 other units in the complex. Toronto city council voted to close the 1970s-era buildings after community housing officials determined they were no longer safe: the foundations and walls were structurally unsound and there was not enough money for repairs.
Firgrove is a stark example of Toronto’s public housing crisis.
Decades ago, the provincial and federal governments decided they no longer wanted to be responsible for some 2,100 buildings — $9 billion of publicly owned assets — and the mostly vulnerable and low-income tenants who live in them. That left social housing in the city’s hands and severely underfunded. In recent years, hundreds of Toronto Community Housing units have been boarded up, and within the next five years, half of TCH developments are expected to be in a critical state of disrepair, with fixes projected to cost $1.6 billion over 10 years. While a handful of TCH communities like Regent Park are now being revitalized thanks to an influx of private money from developers, most, like Firgrove, rely on government funds.
Last month, the federal and provincial governments — acknowledging that Toronto’s social housing woes had been created by the disengagement of previous governments — pledged to protect that housing as part of a $40-billion national strategy. Exactly how and when that money will trickle down to cities is still being worked out. As a stopgap, city council recently approved funding for repairs to prevent any additional closures in the next two years.
At Firgrove, 423 people from two of three townhome blocks were uprooted last fall. Given the option to relocate to other community housing, most did, with nearly a third having to move at least 10 kilometres away. Some landed as far the downtown core and eastern Scarborough. Meanwhile, the Firgrove townhouses are slated for demolition. A “master plan” is being developed to include a potential rebuild, according to a TCH spokesperson, but no details have been made public. TCH promised residents they could return if their old homes were rebuilt, but only if that happens by 2024, and only if there is funding to do so. For now, there is no money.
And so, this is the story of the tumultuous life and shifting fortunes of just one of the 110,000 Torontonians who rely on Canada’s largest landlord for safety, security and an affordable place to call home — even if there is no guarantee they can stay.
It’s about what happened to Rose.
The first time Rose learned where she might be able to move was during a packed meeting at a local school.
It was the night of April 13, 2017, and those living in the units slated for closure had been asked to gather inside the gymnasium at Firgrove Public School. Most people had known since early 2017 that they were going to have to find new homes, having received letters and attended community meetings about the looming relocation.
At the school door, each resident was given a piece of paper with a number on it and invited to enjoy refreshments.
Officials from Toronto Community Housing spun a drum, like the kind used for bingo draws, pulling numbers. The first people picked were given their first choice of available units.
Rose’s name was drawn almost last, No. 98.
After their numbers were called, each person went out to tables in the hallway to get information packages with lists of potential addresses to consider. They were also asked to sign up for one-on-one meetings with housing officials.
The lottery-style process was designed to ensure “transparency and objectivity,” according to TCH documents.
“We recognize that the decision to vacate units and relocate affected households in Firgrove had a significant impact on these tenants and the entire community,” TCH spokesperson Bruce Malloch said in a recent statement to the Star. “Permanently closing units is never an easy decision, but it was a necessary step to protect the safety and well-being of our tenants.”
Six days after the lottery, Rose, in a cream shawl and brimmed hat, travelled to City Hall to try to get answers from Mayor John Tory’s executive committee about why she had to move.
“Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” Rose began, seated in the second-floor committee room. Beside her, offering support, were members of the advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Then-interim chief executive officer of TCH Greg Spearn was seated behind her in the public gallery, Tory and councillors in a semicircle in front of her.
“My name is Edna Rose.”
She spoke about the stress of being pushed out of Firgrove and what she was being forced to leave behind — the fruit trees that had grown tall in her yard, the rooms where she had helped raise some of her great-grandchildren.
“I don’t understand why you all are playing politics with my living,” she told them.
Rose’s assessment was apt: The rapid decline of Toronto’s public housing is tied to a mid-1990s decision by Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government that put federal funding for public housing on the chopping block.
At the time, housing advocates were already warning about the poor state of the buildings. Not long after the federal decision, the Ontario government under then-Conservative premier Mike Harris downloaded the responsibility for those properties onto cities, without funds for repairs.
Toronto Community Housing was born out of those decisions, as was the mounting financial burden that Toronto is now incapable of carrying alone.
At one point, the city thought it had enough money to handle the repairs at Firgrove, with Tory making that announcement in view of Rose’s yard. But after engineers got a look at the bones of the buildings, they determined it would be cheaper to rebuild. The revelation was like scheduling an oil change and finding out you need a new engine.
So by the time Rose travelled to City Hall in April 2017, nothing she said would have made any difference. Council still had to vote on the closures, but it was only a technicality in a process that was well underway.
Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who in his time had championed building new public housing, admonished Tory’s committee at that same meeting.
“I think we have to call it what it is,” Sewell said. “This is a major failure of the city’s political leadership, to actually have properties in its control — it’s been in its control for almost 20 years now — and in fact it can’t manage to find the way to keep them in good repair.”
After the meeting, Rose was dejected.
“If Toronto Housing was maintaining this place, it would be one beautiful place,” she told the Star. “Where is the (repair) money going? To hell with all of them — God will make a place for me to go.”
What she couldn’t know is whether the place she would end up would have rooms for the great-grandchildren she cared for or whether it would be too far from the school where she works as a crossing guard.
She also had yet to face at least four rounds of home selection — competing with other tenants for the most desirable properties — in a process that would take more than seven months and exhaust and frustrate her throughout.
“It’s taking my life out of me,” Rose said then.
That life began on March 12, 1941, at Black River Hospital in St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica, where Rose was born, the second eldest in a family of three sisters and one brother.
She never knew her father and she endured the wrath of a strict mother who punished Rose by tying her to a tree or leaving her in a cave for days at a time. This treatment, Rose says, resulted in the anxiety and claustrophobia that to this day keeps her out of elevators and the subway.
She had her first son at 17, the result of a rape by someone close to her family, she says.
Her next 10 children, nine girls and one boy, were born into what she describes as a toxic and sometimes violent marriage. She fled Jamaica in 1979, leaving her small children behind because, she says, her life was in danger.
Rose arrived in Toronto, moving in with a sister in north Etobicoke. When the sisters fell out, Rose lived day-to-day in a string of rooming houses, eventually getting a one-bedroom apartment.
She applied for public housing and moved into Firgrove in 1986.
The community was built as an insular development typical of public housing design of that era. It was made up of interlocking townhomes and one tower surrounding a fenced-in swimming pool, a basketball court and a community centre. Reports of gun violence in the area were common. In the early years, Rose tried and failed to get a transfer out.
In 1988, she brought one son and daughter up from Jamaica and supported her family by cleaning hotel rooms near the airport and working in a hotel kitchen. She became a Canadian citizen a few years later. She also became a Mormon and joined the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jane St. in the mid-’90s.
Much of her large family remains in Jamaica, although she goes back to visit.
Faith has helped her through the death of four daughters in Jamaica, three to cancer and another to domestic violence, and the murder of her eldest son, also in Jamaica, in 1990, shot in a case of mistaken identity just months before he was to move to Canada.
“I knew if he came here I would have been well taken care of as a mother,” Rose said. In her grief, she saved his immigration papers for close to two decades, then burned them in her yard.
Her Firgrove home was where she eventually welcomed and cared for grandchildren. The two trees in her front yard were planted in honour of two of them, grown from the seeds of fruit she ate. Then came great-grandchildren, including two whose names were added to her housing records when they were babies because she would frequently care for them.
She has celebrated moments of extraordinarily good fortune. In 2012, she won $100,000 playing Keno. The money didn’t last. She made a $10,000 loan to a friend, paid for the funerals of two of her children in Jamaica, gave money to other family members, got rid of a high-interest loan, bought the large television she watches her shows on and then tucked away $7,000, to pay for her own funeral one day.
Like most of the people living in community housing, Rose’s rent is subsidized based on her income. Lottery prizes in Ontario are not counted as income unless the funds generate a profit through investment, so her winnings didn’t result in her paying more rent or losing her housing.
Rose says when the lottery money went so did the friends that came with it.
Any current comforts are dependant on her work as a crossing guard, a position she has held for seven years at St. Charles Garnier Catholic School where she knows many of the children by name.
While still living at Firgrove, each work day would start the same: She would pack up her whistle, neon vest and stop sign, catch the 35 Jane bus north, and be at her post on Stong Crt. by 8:30 a.m., waiting for the kids to arrive.
On one warm September morning, Marcus, 6, got a warm hello as he played with his fidget spinner. So did Julian, almost 4 and dressed in a Spider-Man costume. With each change of the traffic lights, Rose blasted her whistle: “I’ve been blowing it for seven years, so I’m addicted,” she said. It was the first of three shifts. She would return at lunch and then again at the end of the school day, taking the bus a total of six times and resting at home in between.
The job pays Rose about $1,000 each month. With her pension of about $1,100, her monthly income can be as much as $2,100. At Firgrove, she used that to cover her $530 rent, plus her Metropass, food, clothing, and her phone, cable and medical bills. Without the job, she would — after paying housing costs, transit and some bills — be living off about $10 per day.
And so Rose knew she couldn’t relocate too far from work. Nor could she — due to her fear of enclosed spaces — endure an apartment that required taking an elevator.
And most importantly, a new place had to have room for the great-grandchildren who live with her months at a time. Originally told she qualified for a three-bedroom space, Rose discovered, at round four of the housing lottery, that her only option was a one-bedroom unit because she was not the legal guardian of her great-grandchildren.
By July, she was one of 34 households yet to find a suitable space. TCH told those remaining that if they were unable to find a new home by end of October, they would be served with eviction notices and could face being pushed out of subsidized housing.
Rose tried to take it in stride, but the stress of an uncertain future had her frequently breaking down in tears.
“I don’t like this,” Rose says as she sizes up the main entrance of what could be her new apartment, near Hwy. 401 and Jane St., about nine kilometres from Firgrove.
She faces a long stretch of stairs to the front door. She hobbles to the buzzer; it goes unanswered. She’s 10 minutes early but has to get back to work at her crossing guard post.
“Are we on a wild-goose chase?” she asks.
The superintendent, in flip flops, eventually emerges and shows her down a flight of stairs. She descends slowly then sways, arms outstretched to the cinder-block walls on either side of her, down the hallway.
Once inside the apartment, she rounds the corner into the kitchen and living room to see it opens up onto a large back lot filled by a massive oak tree.
“Oh my god!” she exclaims. She’s quickly out the back door, focused on garden beds outside the unit. She asks if she could plant in them.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” the superintendent tells her. He doesn’t know about the peach and nectarine trees or the flowers that Rose is being forced to leave behind at Firgrove, nor how gardening has been a source of comfort to her.
“I have to take it,” she says when the viewing is over. There is no room here for her great-grandchildren. They’ve been asking her: “Nana, when are we coming back home?” But there are few options left. This is the end of the line, she says.
“What they put a 76-year-old through, it is hell,” she says two days before being scheduled to move. “I won’t forget it.”
On Oct. 13, the moving truck is at her Firgrove unit.
Rose casts a wary eye toward the moving crew: two young, slim men in their early 20s who expertly size up the door frames and a life’s worth of possessions, including her red-velvet tufted sofa and dark wood armoire. Her belongings aren’t the first they’ve moved out of Firgrove and won’t be the last.
Halfway through, apprehension shifts to admiration as Rose watches the movers deftly heft and haul her furniture into the truck. One of the last things to go is a horseshoe nailed above the living room door. The metal ‘U’ protects and brings love and prosperity to its owner, according to a poem that came with it. A few friends help wrap smaller items and pack up her large TV.
When she arrives at her new home, a group of young men from her church show up to move boxes from the truck, as do a couple more friends. Nobody from her family is there to help.
Pausing behind the oak tree that shades her new yard, Rose lets a few tears come before quickly wiping them away on her sweatered sleeve.
“My life is like a roller-coaster,” she says. “It never stops rolling.”
Days after the move Rose is on a bus returning to Firgrove.
“I just have a feeling that they took my plants,” she says. As Firgrove emptied out, people had been picking through and taking anything valuable left behind.
As she approaches the gate of her old yard, she sees two security guards hired by TCH to patrol around the abandoned and boarded-up units. She cheerfully informs them she is going to her old garden, to take what is hers.
With a shovel she left behind, it takes Rose just a couple of minutes to get two hearty plants out of the hard earth. One, with pink flowers, was given to her by one of her sons. The other, which she got after her daughter was killed, has white blossoms.
Lastly, she makes for the door to her old home, pulling a screwdriver from her bag, and goes to work on the gold-coloured numbers she’d fixed there herself so many years ago — 111.
“This is not housing property,” she says matter-of-factly. “This is Edna Rose’s property.”
She drops the numbers and the screwdriver into her hand-pulled shopping cart.
And then, after 31 years, she is gone.
Like her last home, Rose’s new apartment belongs to the city.
And much like Firgrove, there’s no guarantee she can stay.
But Rose is adjusting to her new life as best she can.
A new neighbour banged on her door complaining about noise during her move. Afraid, she called the relocation office back at Firgrove to find out who she should contact for security at the unfamiliar complex.
Since she arrived, two men have been shot and killed, about a month apart, within her apartment block. The second time, Rose was home, and after hearing the shots, hid in her room.
Another neighbour recently complained that a plot where Rose planted the flowering bushes she carted from Firgrove is not hers to garden in after all. She transplanted the plants again and hopes they’ll be safe.
She has also won the lottery twice, $1,000 each time, playing Keno.
At the end of this school year Rose thinks she might have to give up her job as a crossing guard. Because of the distance and the bus route, she is only managing to come home between the morning and lunch shifts. Between lunch and after school, she rests at a nearby daycare. The commute is taking its toll on her, as is the weather in winter.
She thinks often of the trees she left behind and the orange and red fruit that will soon grace the branches.
The greater losses she carries with her. Firgrove was where she set down her own roots, raising a son, a daughter and mourning the deaths of others, planting a garden she couldn’t keep and building a life as best she could. Home is what you make it, she says. And then you have to leave.
Whatever happens, Rose isn’t sure if she could handle another move. Recently, she was told her current rent of $414 is going up and she has to meet with housing staff to question the increase. As well, by 2021, her new home — one of the buildings downloaded from the province — will be in an increasingly “critical” state of disrepair, according to TCH. An investment of $1.83 million is needed post-2019 to repair her building’s structure, plumbing and other elements, a TCH spokesperson confirmed.
At this stage in life — she just turned 77 in March — Rose is meant to be settled, well into retirement, welcoming a new great-grandchild and feeling secure. But she is unsure if she can thrive or even survive in her new home.
The fight in her is waning. Eight decades on Earth, she says, is enough.
But, she adds, it’s up to God.
“I know I am not supposed to be feeling like this, at this age.”
Article by Jennifer Pagliaro and Emily Mathieu for the Toronto Star