when I was seven years old, I had my first oreo cookie. we sat on the lawn of a police station and my mother took out a box of oreo cookies and I was allowed to have as many I wanted. as many as I wanted.
I didn’t wonder why an anti-sugar militant was suddenly letting her daughter have a seemingly unlimited nutritional serving of oreos, let alone why she had handed our big placid sheepdog over to a family friend, or stopped at a gas station to make some cryptic phone call, or why everything felt very go-go-go. I couldn’t and didn’t sense anything except the oreos, forbidden monochromatic fruit, two dry discs masquerading as chocolate with an outlawed chemical fondant inside. crinkly-packaged ambrosia.
later that day we moved into a women’s shelter.
here is what I can say about it: this shelter had a pantry in the basement with cans and jars of non-perishable food, non-perishable everything. I think that’s when I learned the word preserves. a woman took me down there and told me I could choose what to eat, anything I liked from the shelves. I did not say oreos. I was too shy; tongue-tied and mortified around strangers.
that’s all I remember from that place: a pantry of missed opportunity. garbage bags bloated with soft donated things. and praying, at night, for the safety and emotional welfare of my stuffed animals we’d had to leave behind, particularly a ratty, half-flattened orange cat.
these memories feel dried out, defused of feeling. honestly, the whole thing is blurry in my mind.
only that first day, with the oreos, has any definition.
family shelters are where you go when your usual containers—houses, cars, bedrooms—have become terrifying. or someone else’s. either way, you can no longer open your own door. and suddenly, instead of spending each day progressing back and forth between a series of familiar containers, you reach the edge of the world. unbound space. there are no containers at all. not even at night. not even for your children. there are just channels: streets, alleys, faded motel hallways.
this is why we have shelters. so that families do not fall off. or out.
there is a shelter tucked into a nice part of toronto’s east side. it is not a women’s shelter, like the one I stayed at. but it is a family shelter, a place where parents and children facing homelessness take refuge until they can afford a container of their own. many of these clients are refugees.
the shelter has been there for thirty years, longer than the cheese shops, the gastropubs, the brunch spots (all five million of them), the miniature astroturf sidewalk-lawns, and that one boutique that exclusively sells olive oil. it has seen tides of neighbours move in and move out. it has endured.
but now the building’s owners, who have nothing to do with the shelter, have been pulled for financial corruption. the building itself is now transient, an asset to be sold. condo developers—one in particular—are circling. they have the legal right to buy, the legal right to build, and the legal right to empty 106 beds and dismantle one of toronto’s only two family shelters.
they have no obligation to preserve the shelter, nor any reason to. no condo developer in the world wants to sell units above a shelter. poverty, even the kind that’s well-behaved by well-off people’s standards, does not make for energetically branded street-facing hoardings. gentrification demands that developers industriously febreeze away any whiff of what we call sketchy; meaning, families like mine circa 1994. or ones with even worse circumstances, even more worried faces.
what we would like to do is impress upon these developers the throbbing unremitting headache our community will inflict on their temples if they mess with this shelter. how inconvenient a location this is, and how they certainly gave it the old college try but it’s now time to find somewhere else instead.
as with most things in business, headaches begin with an irate public. so red door family shelter is throwing an emergency community gathering this monday, april 7th at 7pm.
I am asking you with humility and frustration to come, even if it’s out of your way, to help future torontonians reach its doors and find a temporary home still waiting inside. to help families climb out of crisis, out of the panicky place we call the woods. to help children grow up—as I did—with softer, blurrier impressions of the peril their parents survived, hieroglyphs they need only decipher when they’re older. when they’re ready.
I hope to see you there.
emergency community gathering
monday, april 7th
7pm – 9pm
ralph thornton centre, 2nd floor
765 queen st. E (map)
free for everyone.