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GiveLife.ca

    
The Outsiders
Autumn: 1

Intro
Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

By Margaret Philp with photographs by Patti Gower

The trees are half-bare, with a thick blanket of red and honey-coloured maple leaves covering the forest floor. A towering tepee in the woods between Fred's camp and the panhandling corner is hard to miss now, but it is little more than a monument to the ravine dwellers, empty except for a ratty sleeping bag and rusty beer cans, the man who constructed it out of tree limbs, tarps and shreds of old carpet dead from cancer for more than a year.

The nights are growing colder, and some of the tents that dotted the Rosedale Valley ravine over the summer have vanished. Boomer is gone, the word going around that he returned to Nova Scotia.

Kurt and Terra have moved their digs across the road to a steep embankment, wedging the tent between two fallen trees that provide a frame for their overhead tarp.

But for the fact they are living in the valley, Kurt and Terra are like so many on the streets of Toronto: homeless, panhandling, snubbing shelters. The street patrols that roam the city at night in vans loaded with hot soup and warm blankets stop at the curbside here as they do on any corner, missions of mercy that at the same time are enabling people to risk living outside.

Deeper in the ravine, the vestiges of civilization trail away. Tents are concealed in the woods a long hike from the road and the ready access of street nurses and patrolling vans. Their occupants are foragers who crave isolation, who are closer to animals in the wild than to citified people.

On the ground underneath the Bloor Street Viaduct, the rain from the night before has unleashed a torrent of water pouring from a drain pipe into a ditch.

A young man is crouched over the dirty pool, cupping his hands into it and drinking. His filthy dark-brown hair falls over a cherubic face. He is riveted to the water, oblivious to the passing traffic and the clatter of the subway trains overhead.

His name is Peter. He lives about a five-kilometre walk from the viaduct, north along the valley floor in a spot isolated and insulated from people.

His tent is nestled down an incline beside the Don Valley Parkway, so close to the thumping highway that it is hidden from the view of motorists. It sits in a stand of trees in an otherwise grassy clearing, with a well-worn path to the river that stops at a flat rock at the water's edge.

He has scavenged an old armchair that faces the tent between the twin limbs of a fallen tree. Some of the branches and bark of the surrounding trees have been hacked off. All around the site are piles of wood for the fire, neatly marked by a perfect square of paving stones.

On a Sunday afternoon, a Street Help minivan is crawling along the bike trail near Peter's camp. Sundays are reserved for exploration, for seeking out the undiscovered ravine dwellers.

At the wheel is Simon McNichol, cheerful, rotund, avuncular. He lived on the streets of Toronto for years before swearing off the bottle and becoming an outreach worker to others stuck in his old shoes.

Sitting shotgun is Ian Ruxton, thin, freckled, wearing a black knitted cap. He kicked a crack habit to start working in the van.

When they happen on Peter's campsite, heat wafts from the embers of a fire. But by the time they reach the tent, he is gone. "He was here, but he saw us and ran," Ian says.

The street patrol first discovered Peter last year, when someone on staff was driving along the parkway and spotted a trail of smoke rising above the trees.

But he darts like a startled deer through the woods, almost never speaks and when he does, in a barely audible whisper. Finding him is tricky enough, never mind stopping him long enough to ladle out a bowl of soup.

An hour later, as the van climbs the road out of the ravine, Ian catches sight of Peter sitting forlornly on the steps in front of a house.

His brown jacket, running shoes and pants are all in tatters, encrusted with dirt. His wavy mop hangs in his watchful eyes, big and brown and wide-set.

As Ian chats to him, standing as close as he dares without frightening him so that he can hear what he might murmur, Peter flashes a thin, broad smile that lasts a split second and is gone.

Haven't seen him for a long time. Is he doing okay? No answer. Would he like a new pair of shoes? Yes, he nods slowly. Then he whispers something Ian can only barely hear. "Come back tomorrow."

Ian fishes out a pair of shoes from the store of used clothes in the rear of the van. "Something has shattered this guy," he says.

Intro
Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story


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