In the early ’90s, at the height of my career in sports journalism, I produced television coverage for Formula One motor racing in London, England. I lived with my wife and our three daughters on a country estate once owned by Henry VIII. We had private tennis courts and a gardener to maintain the grounds.
My career took me to the biggest events in the world. The Olympics in Lillehammer and Atlanta. The FIFA World Cup in Mexico and Italy. I earned a six-figure salary and dined with Mick Jagger in Portugal, Simon Le Bon in Monaco and Paul Simon in Australia. Two of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, called me a friend.
Now, at age 56, I live in a 50-square-foot room at the Evangel Hall Mission, a subsidized housing project at Bathurst and Adelaide, run by the Presbyterian Church.
How did I get from there to here? A combination of bad decisions and bad luck. Back in the ’90s, when I was travelling the world and partying with celebrities, I was drinking a litre of vodka and snorting a gram and a half of cocaine every day. I never did drugs in front of my kids, but each night, after they went to sleep, I’d go out and get wasted.
In 1995, shortly after my family moved back to Toronto, my wife divorced me. I didn’t blame her; I was out of control. Desperate to repair our relationship, I sobered up and signed over our savings, RRSPs and house to my wife in the hope that she’d take me back—but she’d made up her mind. My daughters stayed with their mother.
I spent the next decade struggling with severe arthritis and depression, jumping on and off the wagon, landing jobs and losing them. By 2006, I was broke and homeless. I lived in shelters and rooming houses for a year before finding a spot at Evangel Hall. The building is rent-geared-to-income, which means I only have to pay 30 per cent of my earnings on housing. In the past few years, I’ve scored a few freelance TV gigs, but my main source of income is a disability pension. The space is bare-bones: three strides across, five to get from my bed to the door, with one small window that looks out over a parking lot. I have a stove, a mini-fridge and my own bathroom.
Unfortunately, I also have bedbugs, which relentlessly return no matter how often Evangel Hall sprays my unit. Once in a while, I spot one in my peripheral vision as I pull back my bedsheet. For the rest of the night, I’m consumed by the thought of the bloodsuckers crawling on my skin. It’s a kind of psychological torture. I lie awake, scratching until I bleed.
Every morning when I wake up, my knees and ankles are so wracked with pain from the arthritis that I have to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom. The dark cloud of depression paralyzes me. I often struggle to get out the door.
Most of my neighbours are worse off. One tenant was evicted because he brought hookers to his place and beat them up. Another is a schizophrenic who loses control when he’s off his meds; once he tried to stab me with a butter knife. Yet another dropped dead a few weeks ago. He’d spent all his time collecting empty bottles, buying beer with the proceeds and drinking in the laneways behind local restaurants.
Right now, a unit just down the hall is sealed with police tape. The tenant had Lou Gehrig’s disease and drank himself to death with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and grape juice—“purple Jesus,” he called it.
On the ground floor of Evangel Hall is the drop-in, where the poor and homeless can stop by for a free meal. Each day, the room fills with drifters, ex-cons, people who can’t hold down a job. The staff do the best they can with their meagre donations. Sometimes the food is good, depending on who’s cooking. Most days we get turnips, zucchini, potatoes and mystery meat. But the price is right.
Last year, TVO asked me to make a short film about my community for the international Why Poverty? campaign. The movie was well received. It played at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (you can watch it online here). I saw my work onscreen again and travelled on a publicity tour. But despite all the positive feedback, I haven’t been able to land any work. I’ve knocked on dozens of doors. I’ve received encouragement from many influential people, but none of them know what to do with me. Old acquaintances still see me as the degenerate drug addict I was back in the ’90s. It’s taken a long time to get people to trust me again. Some of them never will.
The thing that scares me the most is going to bed one night and not waking up. In the past year, 24 people in and around my building have died. Some from cancer. Some from heart attacks or diabetes. Many of them just gave up.
These days, my priorities are simple: get a decent job and reunite with my kids; only my youngest speaks to me now. I want to believe I’ll get back on my feet, but most days I’m plagued by the fear that there’s nothing left for me. That I’m like Sisyphus, forced to repeat my penance forever. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.
Vac Verikaitis is a Toronto writer and filmmaker.
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