By Katie Swyers
Panhandling in the crook nestled beside the entrance of Forever 21 on Yonge Street, Tony Bowring, 54, told The Eyeopener about life before and on the streets. Two years ago, he said, a brain tumour diagnosis took away his driver’s license and ability to work. Since then, he’s been roughing it on the streets and surviving on government aid, while becoming a familiar face to Ryerson students. This is his story.
How did you find out about the brain tumour?
I was at a grocery store in Burlington, Ont., and I just hit the floor — I just went all pale, white and sweaty. I started shaking around and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. It’s a pea-sized tumour that causes seizures and panic attacks.
What did that feel like?
Like you’re dying. They take away your driver’s license right away when that happens — it’s suspended automatically for three years, and I had to sign with the neurologist that I wouldn’t go to work. You have to do that because it’s his responsibility if you go to a job site and get hurt. They put me on disability, $1,149 a month. Now I get less because I live on the street.
What was your life like before the brain tumour diagnosis?
Well, I had my own business for 25 years, I was a handy man and I was married for 25 years. I used to be a [sic] Canadian champion motocross racer — I did road-racing until I was 31. I had a good life but everything just fell apart on me. I just can’t seem to get it together again. My wife and I broke up because I was always sick, miserable and depressed.
Why did you come to Toronto?
I came to get disability help. There was no help in Burlington, so I had to come out here. I was in a real bad apartment, near King and Dufferin streets, when I first came but I couldn’t handle the bed bugs anymore, I was just covered in them.
Is there affordable housing in Toronto for you?
Not unless you want to end up in a crack house, with five or six other guys. I don’t do drugs. I never drank my whole life — smoked a bit of weed but that’s it.
How much money does it take to survive?
Ten dollars a day to live on, I guess, because I won’t go to a shelter. Shelters are shitholes — sorry — but they are. They’re just dumps, like there are people just walking around with HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis C and they’ve got the jail mentality — they just want to fight everybody and steal all your stuff. They’re horrible places. I went to one, where there were 120 beds on one floor. It was crazy, so out the door I went. I’m not going back. The streets are safer.
How did you adapt to the streets?
Just by talking to other people on the streets. They give you little tips, where to stay and how to do it. All us homeless people, we help each other out. You can feel like a ghost some days. Some days you can sit here all day and not make a penny and then some days you can make 20 bucks.
Where are the good panhandling places?
The Tim Hortons on Victoria Street.
What are Ryerson students like?
Excellent. Excellent because they stop and talk to you. Like most people just look at you and walk by. You just feel like a ghost, a lonely ghost.
What makes your day?
When somebody stops to talk to me (laughs). Honestly that makes everyone’s day. It makes you feel like a normal person, instead of all these guys who are on drugs.
What does your panhandling money go to?
Eating. Coffee and eating — maybe cigarettes. (Notices policemen) There’s a cop right there — shit. They give you tickets for panhandling, eh? I don’t have any. I never get them because [the cops] know me, but all these other guys get like, 200 or 300 dollars in tickets. It goes on their driver’s license and after a while with unpaid fines you’ll do jail time. A friend of mine was smoking by Tim Hortons while panhandling, so he got soliciting, smoking less than nine metres away from a door, and then the cop said, ‘Put your cigarette out.’ So he stepped on it on the sidewalk and got littering. A real nice cop. Most of them are really nice though, there’s just one mean guy. Overall, we’ve got a great police force — they don’t beat anyone down here. They’re not bullies.
What’s something people should know?
Everybody on the street, every guy has a story. Something bad has happened to everybody. I wish somebody would go around and make a movie — actually show the government what’s going on. Like don’t ever go down the alley behind the Hard Rock Café off Dundas Square. There are needles everywhere, [sic] four people have overdosed in the last two months down there. A guy got squished under a dumpster. He was sleeping behind it and the stupid ass in the truck didn’t see him when he put the dumpster back down on the ground and squished him. Half the shit that goes on down here doesn’t make the news — they don’t want to see us on the news. When Pan Am came around, the cops just went crazy — kicked everybody off the streets.
Where did you go?
Out of area. They don’t want the tourists seeing the homeless. They have centralized everything in Hamilton because it’s in really bad shape, so eventually they want to push all of us out there — my disability worker was telling me that.
Do you see any way out?
Oh yeah, once I get my driver’s license back I want to work again. I love working. I’ll get a van, go on Kijiji and then away I go. At the end of August this year, the three-year suspension is over and I can work again.
So seven more months?
Oh, that’s nothing.