Home(less) is Toronto

According to a recent news release from the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB), sales are down. They suggest the decline is likely due to the federal mortgage stress test. The stress test means that a home costing between $500,000 and $999,999 requires a minimum 5% down payment on that first $500,000, plus a 10% down payment on the value between $500,000 and $999,999. In other words, home buyers are required to put down a larger down payment than previously.

Toronto Real Estate Trends’ March Housing Market Report quotes Toronto MLS statistics that the average price for a Toronto house is $838,046, with detached homes still averaging over a million dollars.  This means that buying an average home in Toronto requires a hefty down payment, as it falls into this $500,000 to $999,999 range. It also means that new home owners are struggling to make the down payment, and taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, with low interest rates predicted to rise soon.

For now, both mortgage and Ontario’s unemployment rates are relatively low, but minimum wage is currently stagnating at $14 an hour. So someone working a 40-hour week at minimum wage is grossing less than $30,000 a year. By some estimates, the cost of living in Toronto rose from $28,200 a year in 2017, to $32,885 in 2018, and is predicted to go up to $38,572.68 a year for 2019 with no decline on the horizon. So the cost of living in Toronto is already beyond what many people make, and rising far faster than most people’s incomes. Most of this increase is due to housing costs. People don’t just want to survive—they want to thrive! They want to save money towards that hefty down payment. Clearly that can’t happen.

Like it or not, nearly 50% of people in Toronto live in rental housing. But even that’s not simple. According to the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC), Toronto’s rental market only has a 1.1% vacancy rate, one of the lowest in the country.  Toronto has very limited rental accommodation, and renters are hanging onto their units as they watch the cost of rental housing rapidly skyrocketing. TREB estimates the average one-bedroom apartment is now $2,145, with a two-bedroom at $2,810. Even if you can find an apartment in this competitive market, you still have to come up with first and last, and reliably pay over two-thousand dollars rent a month.

It’s difficult to accurately estimate the homeless population of Toronto, but it’s grown noticeably in the last year. In 2018, a Toronto City needs assessment report estimated 8,715 homeless, with 533 people living outdoors. Although the 2019 figures have yet to be released (we’re still in winter), Toronto’s homeless population averages about 100 deaths per year. If a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, we’re doing a lousy job.

How do we fix this? It’s a complicated problem, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. But what I do see is that the cost of housing in Toronto is spinning out of control. Few are able to live comfortably in this market, many are taking on debt that they’ll never be able to pay off, many are scraping by month-to-month renting sometimes sub-standard housing, and an increasing number are falling between the cracks and living on the street. Some cities have had good success with housing-first initiatives, wherein homeless people are provided with housing first and then supported in getting back on their feet. It’s also worth investing in more rental units, rather than condos, and keeping rents in a more affordable price range, while also ensuring that they’re maintained.

An awful lot of money is flowing through the hands of realtors and banks. While I have no issue with people making a decent income, I take exception at a very few making a great deal of money from the labour or others who are struggling.  

© Catherine Jenkins 2019 all rights reserved

Winter in Canada

Although temperatures were slow to cool last fall, and have yoyoed up and down the last couple of months, we’ve had a number of Extreme Cold Warnings with temperatures in the -15 to -21C range this January. These kinds of temperatures can cause irreversible harm or death to humans and other animals, especially when accompanied by windchills into the -30C range.

We’ve also recently had the first real snowfall of the season, receiving about 25 centimetres in one storm. Over January, Toronto has accumulated 63.4 centimetres, the most we’ve had in years.  In January 1999, then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the army when Toronto received 38 centimetres in one storm, and a further 27 centimetres ten days later. Toronto became the laughing stock of Canada for this profound overreaction.

This is winter in Canada. We get hit by some version of this every year, yet it still seems to come as a surprise with the shock of an ambush.

This is the time of year when I argue that we should revert to Fahrenheit temperatures for purely psychological reasons. +5F sounds much warmer than -15C, and there is profound comfort in that. I remember going to school when temperatures were in the minus teens and twenties Fahrenheit. I survived. But we’ve become such a risk-averse society. Everything’s become a crisis. As the Norwegians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” If you dress for it, you’ll be fine.

Granted, I have a home to come home to, and although some people in my building haven’t had adequate heat, I’m doing okay. Although the legal minimum in Toronto is 21C, apparently if the building is working on bringing it up, the city won’t intervene.

Toronto’s homeless population has grown noticeably in the last year or so, and these people aren’t as fortunate. Toronto’s shelters are overburdened, so many stay on the street even in these temperatures. According to Toronto city data, about two people died per week between January 1 and March 31, 2018. With the current polar vortex, I expect the numbers for 2019 will be higher. If the measure of a civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we’re failing.

I hope you and yours have someplace warm to retreat to, and the right clothing for this weather. Me? I’m hibernating as much as possible. Because even though my rent just went up, and ice is forming on the inside of my double-glazed windows, I’m one the the fortunate ones.

© Catherine Jenkins 2019 all rights reserved

Teddy

Dedicated to the memory of Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, two children who died in immigration custody after crossing the American border from Guatemala.

Granny gave him Teddy when he was four. She’d patched him together from scraps lovingly sewn with tiny stitches in the dim evening light. He and Teddy became inseparable. But by the time he was five, his life and his world were very different.

Granny became thinner and thinner. The old woman wasted, slowly fading into quiet uninterrupted by breathe. His mother cried, and his father clamped his jaw tight against emotion. The little boy clutched Teddy closer. He always had food, but only years later did he understand that the extra bread Granny had given him wasn’t extra, but her own share of the family’s meager portion. His parents shared whispers in the dark, mouthing thoughts beyond his comprehension.

His mother woke him suddenly in full disorienting blackness, urging him to get up and dress quickly. Fumbling, he did his best, presenting himself to his mother and father with Teddy clutched tight under his arm.

His father took one last look before closing the door of their shack behind them. Outside, the boy became aware of shouting and gunfire and flashing lights in the distance. His parents had packed food and their few precious things into their two sheets. Each carried one. His father, looking wary, took the lead. His mother took the boy’s hand. He could feel her trembling, which scared him.

They walked, blinded by blackness. Quickly at first. Slowing as tiredness approached. They followed a narrow dirt road. Sometimes he tripped, righted by his mother’s hand. When he became too tired, his father lifted him up, cradling him against his strong back. His father smelled of sweat, and something unfamiliar. He clutched Teddy tight to his little chest, sandwiching him safely against his father.

Sometimes, others joined them. Strangers. Sometimes words were spoken. There seemed a quiet reverence in this march. A fear. A dim hope.

Then they came to the fence. They stopped. His father put him down. He looked up and saw his father’s tension. He could feel his mother’s hand shaking again as it gripped his little hand. The fence was taller than his father. It had spiky metal bits on top. All three of them looked up, daunted and fearful. He knew what was going to happen next, and was frightened, although he wasn’t sure why. He clutched Teddy even tighter.

Dawn was approaching. After urgent whispered discussion, and seeking in the dark for hidden dangers, his father quietly climbed, carefully lifting himself between and over the spiky metal bits. At the top, he stopped briefly, again checking the dark around them. He started to climb down, then dropped to the other side. A few shrubs broke under his weight. They waited in tense silence, seeing each other through the separating fence.

His father signaled that it was safe. His mother lifted him and Teddy as high as she could. He clutched the fence fiercely with both hands, feet finding toeholds, keeping Teddy wedged under his arm. Both parents urged him to climb. He was terrified, but knew he had to do what his parents asked. He climbed carefully, trying to be quiet. The fence was so high, his little arms and legs so tired. His mother started climbing too, her presence urging him onward. Eventually, he made the top of the fence. The metal spikes looked even more lethal close up.

His father urged him under the wire. His mother held the wire to make it easier for him. His little body was just small enough to get through, although he felt the sharp scratch though his thin shirt. His father motioned for him to drop. His father would catch him. He took a breath and dropped, landing in his father’s strong arms. His mother was suddenly beside them. His parents ran, his father still carrying him.

Loss. Teddy? Granny? Teddy? The little boy started crying the loud uncontrolled sobs of grief. His parents slowed but could not stop. They couldn’t understand what was wrong. Was their only child somehow injured?

Finding a dense thicket some distance from the fence, they stopped in the shelter of trees. As the boy sobbed and screamed, his father urgently checked limbs and body, finding the bloody slash across his tiny back where the razor wire had assaulted him. Watching in still silence, his mother looked scared. Then she noticed Teddy was missing and told his father what was wrong. Looking back, they could see the tiny shaped rags twisting from the razor wire on the fence top.

His father, aware of the risk of noise, urged for quiet. The exhausted boy was inconsolable. Hurried discussion between his parents. Then his father was gone, vanished into the nearing dawn. The boy, suddenly quiet, peered through the early light to see his father’s furtive glance, before swinging himself back onto the fence. He swiftly scuttled up the vertical metal, then raised one arm to rip Teddy down, before dropping back to earth and running quickly back to his family.

Overcome, the little boy jumped up to greet Teddy and hugged his father. His mother assured him that she would mend Teddy’s arm. But now, right now, they had to keep running silently through the coming day, and for many days to come.

Teddy now sat on his bookshelf. Whenever he glanced at his childhood toy, the events and emotions of that terrifying night flooded him. His mother had repaired Teddy’s torn arm with love and patience, but no access to materials. Since that night, the arm had looked a little thin, wasted like he remembered his Grandmother towards the end. But his mother and father had made it. He’d made it. And his precious Teddy had made it too.

UNICEF estimates that 30 million children are currently displaced by conflict, more than at any time since WWII. Let’s try for a better world in 2019.  

© Catherine Jenkins 2018 all rights reserved

A Glimpse of Athens

The last leg of this trip involved a couple of days in Athens. I’d done my homework and had a list of sites to see. As usual, I was travelling on a budget, but with all the strife I’d heard about in Athens, I also wanted to ensure my personal safety, so I spent a little extra on accommodations. I ended up with a room near the Omonia subway station—big mistake.

The hotel itself was secure and newly renovated. I had a comfortable, spacious room, with a corner balcony—overlooking several abandoned buildings. After settling in, I went in search of dinner, and very quickly decided to get something to go and be back in my room with the door locked before nightfall. Whenever I look around to discover that I’m the only woman in a street full of men (other than the two out-of-their heads female junkies I noticed), I retreat. The second night, a homeless man followed me for three blocks begging for my to-go sandwich. Although this district is considered the heart of downtown, the nights were eerily dark and quiet, other than the odd siren. If I were back in Athens, I’d avoid this neighbourhood and spend even more on accommodations in the touristy area.

The proximity to a subway station did make for easy travel into the old city where I spent a full and very long day walking. I started at the Acropolis, which was hot enough even in the morning that another tourist fainted.

Parthenon

Amazing to wander around so many famous ancient buildings: the Parthenon, the Porch of the Caryatids on the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Theatres of Herodes Atticus and Dionysos. I also enjoyed watching local cats being given food and water by people working on the hilltop. The Acropolis was getting very busy by the time I descended late morning.

Theatre of Herodes Atticus

Caryatids on the Erechtheion

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there, I wandered through Monastiraki and the Plaka, seeing the Ancient Agora, the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, ancient libraries, and many other ruins. I made it to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in time to witness the tail-end of the changing of the guards. And I ended a very long day of walking at the Temple of Olympian Zeus, just as the sky became heavy with rain.

Tower of Winds

Temple of Olympian Zeus

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the morning, after being told by several people that the graffiti-covered metro I’d ridden in on from the ferry docks wasn’t safe—especially during morning rush hour—I decided to splurge for a cab. Exiting the city, four motorcycle cops tore by on two bikes on their way to break up a protest, flyers blowing across the road in front of us.

Unwelcome sight in downtown Athens

©Catherine Jenkins 2018 all rights reserved

A Brief Exploration of Three of Greece’s 6,000 Islands

I didn’t come home directly from Rome. A friend offered me their couch on the Greek Island of Paros. How could I refuse? Paros itself is a less touristy island, so a great place to get a more authentic feel of Greece. Lots of sun, lush growth, and ubiquitous white architecture with blue trim.

Ubiquitous Greek architecture

Lush greenery surrounding weathered door, Paros

 

 

 

 

 

Every night we enjoyed a meal at a different restaurant, often on the harbour. Each restaurant supports its own local cats who beg for table scraps, and occasionally something extra from the kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised that most cats I saw seemed to be in very good health, thanks in large part to the Paros Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

Restaurant cat patiently awaiting table scraps

 

As is typical of islands the world over, Paros also offers a variety of ferries to other islands. We enjoyed a day-trip to Mykonos via the ancient sacred island of Delos, purported to be the birthplace of the god Apollo. No one lives on Delos and no overnight accommodation is offered. Alighting in the harbour is like stepping onto the set of Time Team or some other archeological adventure. Tourists can wander throughout the site, although some buildings are cordoned off, while others are under reconstruction. The challenge is that the trails aren’t always well marked, some are quite rugged and hilly—and your tour boat has a schedule that won’t wait! Even considering these factors I felt I had a good explore and took lots of photos.

Dolphin mosaic, house of Dolphins, Delos

Terrace of Lions, Delos

 

 

 

 

 

Mykonos is heavily touristy, but despite this, it has a unique and pleasant feel. The harbour is packed with yachts of the famous and conspicuously rich. Even though it was filmed on Crete, the presence of a series of windmills in the main town of Chora brought back memories of seeing the film the Moon Spinners as a child. Little Venice along the harbour features amazing sea views from a variety of restaurants that share a walkway above the sea. Mykonos struck me as a place I’d like to return to sometime, maybe with more time to explore outside the town centre. Lots more Greek islands to explore too! So I suspect I’ll be back.

Little Venice, Chora, Mykonos

Windmills, Chora, Mykonos

 

 

 

 

©Catherine Jenkins 2018 all rights reserved