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With gentrification, poor face choice between housing and community

Available community housing often far from friends and services

by Saira Peesker

Nipper, Brian DuBourdieu and Sam Ash sit on the church steps at Dundas and Sherbourne on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.
Nipper, Brian DuBourdieu and Sam Ash sit on the church steps at Dundas and Sherbourne on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.

Sitting on the church steps at Dundas and Sherbourne Streets, Brian DuBourdieu and his friends Nipper and Sam Ash seem to know nearly everyone who passes by, waving or sharing jokes with people in cars, on bikes and on foot.

While DuBourdieu lives in veterans’ housing, his friends are homeless, and have lived in the neighbourhood’s parks, rooming houses and shelters for  many years. He once lived there too, and now spends his time advocating for the under-housed with groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

Moving between shelters and hostels isn’t an easy life, but all three men say being near people they know plays a big part in keeping them happy and safe. That’s why, despite encroaching gentrification that’s taking a bite out of available rooming-house space, none of them are interested in moving away – even if that means more secure housing.

“People here are a community,” says Brian, who knows several people who were placed in community housing units in the suburbs but ended up back on the streets downtown. “We look out for each other and don’t want to be forced to move to Scarborough.”

Instead, they’d like to see space maintained for low-income tenants in the Downtown East, an area full of services and support aimed at people in their position. While it seems nearly impossible to push back against gentrification, especially in such a central neighbourhood, all say they aren’t sure where else they would go.

Brian is the outgoing one of the three, while Nipper – the only name he offered – and Sam are largely silent. Sam mostly just beams, at his friends and at everyone else, his wide smile showing some missing teeth.

When prompted, the more stoic Nipper says all he really wants is a decent room that is private and secure. He’d like to be far enough to escape the chaos of street life, but close enough to walk to see his friends. What he doesn’t want is for the neighbourhood to change so much that the poor no longer belong, something Brian believes is well on its way.

“There are lots of wealthy people in Cabbagetown but we used to just get along with each other,” he said. “Now we’ve got the people moving downtown from the suburbs and suddenly they’re up in arms about people drinking in the park.

“You knew they were drinking and doing drugs down here before you moved in!”

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