Homeless man is out of the cold

Jan 3, 2018

By Ian Harvey

Birch Cliff’s homeless man, Todd MacDonald, has decamped and was last seen heading for a warm bed and the care he desperately needs but may not accept.

Or has he?

It seemed Todd had a brief flash of reason on Wednesday as he agreed to accept the offer of being taken to a care centre and with reports of a polar vortex heading this way, set to send temperatures plunging to minus 37 C (with windchill).

Yet four hours later he was knocking on my door, asking if he could come in and jam on his guitar, saying he’d checked himself out of Sunnybrook Hospital because “they said I was crazy and wanted to put me in a mental ward.”

It wasn’t the ending we’d hoped for.

Earlier, three social workers from various agencies, two Toronto works employees and four police officers arrived at Todd’s camp at Warden Ave. and Kingston Rd. around 2 pm Wednesday. The initial plan wasn’t to move him then but to get him ready for the inevitable.

After a couple of weeks of back and forth, finally the city was to issue a clearance order for next week under a City of Toronto bylaw.  The  intent was to do it when they could schedule a psychiatrist to be on hand to make an assessment under the Mental Health Act as to whether Todd – aka Fox – was a “danger to himself or others.”

If he was, then the law could kick in and take him forcibly to a hospital or somewhere like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Todd, a long time resident of Birch Cliff, has schizophrenia. He’s been off his medications for some time and slipped into a state of delusion with little grasp of reality or his own grave situation.

On Wednesday, as usual, the man affectionately known as Guitar Guy because of his habit of playing all day long, was resistant and refusing to move or give up his stuff.

The ballet that followed is played out on streets and neighbourhoods in Toronto every day. The cops stood back and let the mental health workers do their job while the gentle conversation continued.

You don’t force people like Todd. You must first win their trust and that’s almost impossible given their mental health challenges.

As I crossed the road, shooting pictures, Todd saw me coming and motioned me over, recognizing me from our earlier encounters and chats.

“They’re trying to force me off public property,” he said.

“I know Todd but everyone is concerned about you, there’s another deep freeze coming, it’s not safe anymore,” I said. “These folks just want to do the best they can for you. Just like everyone in the community. We’re worried about you.”

He drifted off into a rant about being the sheriff and a doctor and we let him go on.

The last time I spoke to Todd, after writing a story for the Birch Cliff News, it was before Christmas.

“I’m fine, though a lot of people say I’m wooo wooo wooo,” he said, circling his finger around his ear. “I’d be better except for those trying to take what I own,” he told me then.

While the conversation can start off normally enough, it soon digresses into a rambling fantasy.

He’s mafia. His family, fixtures in the Birch Cliff community for decades are “Satanists” while his real family is the “Queen of England” and “Rolls-Royce.”

He owns IBM. And much more. He can’t leave because he has to keep an eye on things.

What we have discovered in assembling details from this and other posts is that Todd and his family lived in Birch Cliff dating back to the early 1970s.

His father, Elroy, is remembered in the neighbourhood as the man who fixed local kids’ bikes in a garage at the back of the Red Brick apartments. He passed in 2012.

His mother, Merna, was a fixture around the area, riding a pink bicycle with a basket on the front, slim and fit, usually dressed in a pink jumpsuit and looking like she’d stepped out of a 1960s TV show.

Apparently the entire home was decorated in pink too, according to her former neighbours. Their other son apparently lives nearby.

“He seemed normal as a child,” says one of his school friends and neighbour. “His parents were known to everyone in the neighbourhood.”

Then he became Guitar Guy, a fixture around Birch Cliff.

On Wednesday Todd was visibly shaking, but whether it was from fear or the cold was impossible to tell.

First, he agreed the brown micro-suede and black vinyl couch he says someone dropped off for him could go.

Then he was convinced his bike and the trailer could be loaded into the mini van.

Then there was the matter of his other stuff, a collection of duvets and blankets, bags of candy bars and snacks and of course, his guitar, safe in a battered black case, held together with duct tape in places.

The issue became the bike and the trailer. Where could it be stored for safe keeping? I’d only arrived to take some pictures and write the story.

A couple of options were kicked around and then I said: “Sure, you can stash it in my driveway behind my gate. I only live a couple of hundred metres up the road here.”

Todd nodded. It was good by him.

At that moment I realized we were on the threshold of a breakthrough. Todd would trust me to take care of his stuff. I have no idea why. I don’t know him really but I have lived here in Birch Cliff since 1981 and somehow I felt a duty to a neighbour.

He trusted me. It was a pivotal moment. Maybe this is what it would take?

So we packed up the trailer and the bike in the mini van and Todd got in the back seat to supervise the placement.

I still half expected him to change his mind.

We got to my house on Warden and moved the bike and the trailer through the snow of the driveway running down the side of my house and in behind the six-foot gate and found a spot in the snow bank against the fence.

Next it was a trip back to get his blankets and sundry effects which had been packed up in to large heavy duty black garbage bags.

They were duly stashed behind the gate with his bike and Todd seemed happy enough.

As they prepared to leave he reached into the van and pulled out his guitar case.

“Can you put this inside?” he asked.

Now, I play guitar and I have played bass guitar in bands my entire adult life as a sideline to my career as a journalist. I know what entrusting someone with your instrument means.

I was honoured.

“You okay with leaving the stuff in bags here?” asked Ryan, one of the mobile crisis team. “When it thaws, they’re probably gonna start to smell a bit.”

“We’ll deal with it when it happens,” I said. “Right now looks like we have a major first step. Let’s hope it works out for him.”

The last time I saw Todd was as the van pulled away, heading downtown to a warm bed, hopefully in a hospital or a place like CAMH where they can get him back on his medication and at least closer to reality.

 

As the debate rages on at City Hall about whether we’re doing enough to support the 5,000 homeless people in Toronto, whether the Armouries are the solution or shoehorning more beds into existing facilities or opening up new beds in public buildings like libraries, City Hall or Exhibition Place, there’s a lesson here.

There were nine city employees standing around for two hours to resolve the challenges facing one man in suburbia.

Multiply that by 5,000 and you start to realize the challenge of dealing with the crisis. It’s not enough to just open beds, it’s so much more complex.

There are no magic wands here. We all have to do our part and with another polar vortex heading this way it means we may have to break out of our comfort zones.

And as Todd’s sudden change of mind, illustrates, it’s damned frustrating.

Ian Harvey is a freelance journalist and media consultant who has lived in Birch Cliff for 37 years.

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9 Comments

  1. Jenni Pitkanen

    I am truly relieved that Todd has a warm place to stay tonight. I hope he will find and accept the help he needs. I appreciate the help the author of this article has provided for Todd and the role he played in getting Todd to take the first step out of the cold. Given Todd’s mental health issues, reporting the details on his rambling commentary is highly inappropriate, unnecessary and invasive akin to describing the physical symptoms of a cancer or aids patient as they suffer through their private battles or their response to treatment as might have been done years ago.

    This is the first online comment I have ever left which speaks to the discomfort I felt as I read that piece of your article. Given your kind actions I know you have a generous heart. Unfortunately these details took away from the story by the voyeuristic tone and unnecessary details about Todd’s hallucinations.

  2. Sandra

    I completely agree with the above comment. While I’m grateful for the author’s help in securing Todd’s belongings, the subjective observations of his “ramblings” and mental state are not appropriate… especially without the ok of the person that is central to the article. Assuming he is not “normal” perpetuates a negative stigma on mental health. This article should be revised to stick to the facts.

  3. Ian Harvey

    Jenni
    Unfortunately reporting requires telling the whole story and letting the reader decide.
    His rambling is proof of his delusions which speak to his disconnection from reality.
    And if I was writing about an AIDS or cancer patient, I would also include a description of the ravages inflicted on their body and contrast or parallel that, as the case may be, with their emotional and spiritual outlook.
    It’s part of the story.

  4. Suzanne Bourgeau

    I have driven past Todd numerous times. Sometimes he had a visitor and they could be seen socializing, having a drink and a smoke, but most times he was alone. I had heard the stories about him but was nice to read the truth. Is it pretty? No, but not everyone has a perfect life. Thanks to Ian for stepping up and helping where many have turned a blind eye. It wouldn’t have been easy for Todd to drive away from his .”home”. Knowing it was safely stored hopefully he can get the help he needs?

  5. Ron Baldwin

    Great article Ian,
    Why anyone would criticize Ian for sharing this story of Todd’s family history and Todd’s own personal mental health issues is beyond me. It was quite obvious to all of us local residents that this fellow needed help to get him off of the street and I commend Ian for helping with this issue. We were all trying to figure out how to help him.
    Ive noticed The Guitar Guy hanging around since last year when he set up his living room outside on the lawn of the red brick buildings on Kingston Road. I’ve talked with Todd a few times now and like every one else, I was very concerned about his wellbeing, especially with another deep freeze coming up. I spoke with him a few days ago I gave him some hot pocket hand and feet warmers to help keep him warm. I explained how they worked and he was quite receptive and thankful for the help. I asked him to consider going to a shelter if only for a few days but his main concern about leaving was what would happen with his belongings?
    Good for Ian to help Todd out by storing his stuff for him.
    You are a good man Ian.
    RB

  6. Amanda

    Great story Ian. You mentioned in the beginning that Todd checked him self out four hours later and showed up at your place. Might I ask where Todd is now?? Is he back on the streets again??

  7. Jane

    I too have concerns with the way this story is being reported on this website. This man is deserving of privacy and this is the second time that this publication has absolutely violated that right.

    Was he fully aware that his family history (pieced together via conjecture in the neighbourhood) was going to be published on this page? Did he know that you were going to report on every single thing that he said to you, whether it was cogent to the “story” or not? You seem very proud of yourself for having gained his trust… this is what you do with it?

    The fact is, you weren’t reporting on a cancer or AIDS patient who gave lucid consent to describe their symptoms, you were sharing irrelevant details that are a complete invasion of his privacy. It is absolutely none of anyone’s business if he “needs help” – leave it to the professionals who have been aware of his situation and helping him all along.

    This publication’s coverage of this man has been voyeuristic and self-serving. If you want to write about the homelessness issue in out city, have at it, but not at the expense of the individuals who are actually living that reality.

  8. Kristen Armstrong

    Thank you for writing this article. Working with homeless youth in the past, I really resonate with the details of this story. I think that it is important to highlight the symptoms of schizophrenia, so that the average reader, without previous experience or knowledge can gain a better understanding of what mental illness looks like. Please keep us updated on his status!

  9. Rani Yoga Devi

    I’m sad and happy for Todd at the same time. Those with mental health issues are not happier or made well by being medicated. They are just easier for others to manage.

    At least he has someone he can trust & most people with mental illness don’t have an Ian in their corner.

    When people with mental health disorders are protected by family nobody but family knows what is going on, when they pass away, the person is on their own & it’s terribly sad.

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