‘Pretty lost’: Toronto man fears shelter system but can’t get help without it

Click to play video: 'Toronto man experiencing homelessness, health issues at 61'
Toronto man experiencing homelessness, health issues at 61
WATCH ABOVE: A Toronto man says he and others like him are falling through the cracks trying to find shelter in the city. As Sean O’Shea reports, the 61 year old with kidney disease says he’s overnighting with friends when possible and sleeping in his car at other times. – Dec 8, 2023

Peter Necheff was born and grew up in Corktown, raised by his parents to be kind.

He worked as a shoeshine boy, then sold newspapers and took on his first full-time job at 15 years old.

“I’m a Toronto boy,” said the 61-year-old.

Twelve years ago, Necheff damaged his heart and his kidneys by taking too much ibuprofen as he struggled to handle pain from work injuries. His cardiologist told him he’d have to reduce how much he worked, something he struggled to do.

Then, three months ago, the housing set-up with a roommate who had been with him through the pandemic fell apart, and he found himself without a home.

“I’m pretty lost out here,” he said.

Despite being without a home in the city where he grew up, Necheff has been told he doesn’t qualify as homeless. He has been couch-surfing for months and faces the prospect of sleeping in his car. He said to get onto a housing waiting list, he would have to enter Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system.

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“The employees of the city tell me — and the 300 people I talked to — that unless you stay in a shelter, you are not homeless,” he said. “Because I’m couch-surfing, you’re precariously housed, it’s not homeless.”

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With a weak immune system, damaged kidneys and three rounds of dialysis every week, Necheff fears entering the system could be fatal.

“I can’t stay in a shelter — if this gets ripped out,” he said, gesturing to a patch on his chest. “If I get in a fight, I’m done. My immune system is weak, there’s diseases there (that could) kill me.”

Necheff is not the first to raise concerns about the city’s shelter system.

At encampments around the city, advocates and residents have previously argued that people staying in tents may not be willing to go into the shelter system.

Andrew Neelands, a longtime volunteer with St. Stephen-In-The-Fields, said when a downtown encampment was removed in November that he did not know where some residents would go.

“I have absolutely no idea where they will go. And that is terrifying to me because the next time I see them, it might be in the newspaper, or it might be in an obituary,” said Neelands.

The city said shelter spaces have been offered to all of the people encamped at the site.

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“I think very few of the people that are here have stayed the whole time. A lot of people have come and gone. Some have made some amazing progress. Some have made major recovery in addiction,” said Neelands.

With nowhere to turn, no desire to sleep at an encampment or in a shelter and no clear options, Necheff reached out to the media to tell his story.

“Desperate,” he responded when asked why he had taken the step.

As someone receiving Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments, he said few landlords are willing to consider him.

“I can’t believe what the core of my city, where I was born, where I grew up, has turned into,” he said. “It’s wild. What happened to ‘Toronto the Good?'”

Necheff said all he wants is a roof over his head to allow him to keep up a good routine.

“A roof, a stable place, a closet,” he said. “I’m a person who needs routine, my diet needs routine… it’s a domino. You lose that zone without the cooking and eating right, then your body hurts more, then you can’t exercise, then your body hurts more.”

Fearing a night in one of the city’s shelters, he says he will sleep in his car if his couch-surfing options fall through.

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“It’s a me, me, selfish society,” he added. “There’s a lot of ways, I’m not proud to be a Canadian anymore. (It’s) not how I was raised.”

— with files from Global News’ Sean O’Shea

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