Earlier today, I joined with others for the funeral service of Abner William ‘Bill’ Buss, the 71-year-old man who died alone in a dark crawl space of an abandoned building near Parliament and Shuter in June. While the official cause of death was ‘natural causes’, there was nothing natural about the final days of Bill Buss. It took more than three weeks for authorities to identify his decomposed remains. Sadly, death on the streets of Toronto is all too common – the Toronto Homeless Memorial at Church of the Holy Trinity includes hundreds of names of women and men who have died on or close to the streets, and a monthly memorial adds new names.
For 17 years, Bill was a member of the Good Neighbours’ Club, a caring group in downtown Toronto’s east end that provides practical support, along with dignity and respect, to older people who are experiencing homelessness. Bill loved the library on the third floor of the club. Here’s what the club had to say about the passing of Bill Buss:
“Bill was one of our regulars at The Good Neighbours’ Club. Day in, day out, he was around for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack. He was a very intelligent fellow, with a quirky sense of humour, and know everything there was to know about engines and mechanics. He loved our third floor library, and heaven help anyone who mis-shelved a book that Bill was reading! If he was your next-door neighbour, you probably would have called him eccentric, and left it at that. Bill went missing a few months ago and without any fixed address it was possible to reach him. Staff and members asked around, but no one had seen him recently. He just went off the radar, something a lot of our guys do, only to resurface again. Bill didn’t resurface. Bill died. Alone. Tucked under a stairwell for warmth. Bill deserved better.”
Such a horrific death, in the dark and alone, on the streets of the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world. Bill’s death drew momentary attention from the news media, which then moved on to the next tragedy. Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Pam McConnell moved a motion of condolence at Toronto City Council to offer Bill a small measure of dignity at his passing.
All of us lead complex lives, and Bill was no different. From his birth on April 2, 1941, in the tiny hamlet of Minitonas in central Manitoba to his death on June 12, 2012, in Toronto, Bill faced many challenges and touched many lives. After his passing, the caring front-line staff at the Good Neighbours’ Club and other agencies that work directly with people who are homeless asked themselves tough questions. And they raised critical comments about the gaps in supports and services that would allow a senior citizen to die in such a miserable way.
It is a credit to these staff and agencies that they care enough to re-commit themselves to the important work of offering practical support and friendship to people who live literally on the margins. And there is a clear challenge to the City of Toronto and the Toronto Drop-in Network not only to ensure that people like Bill are not ‘lost’ on our streets, but also that the city improves its palliative supports for older people living on or close to the streets who are struggling with poor health.
But there is a collective responsibility that reaches beyond the small network of agencies and services that operate with a painfully small level of funding and other resources to support people who are homeless. Two months after Bill’s death, the Economist magazine rated Toronto as the fourth most ‘livable’ city in the world. The tragic death of Bill Buss not only reminds us of the ‘other’ Toronto – where people who are homeless or poorly housed bear a heavy burden of illness and premature death (as noted in the Street Health report, Unequal City and other research documents) – but his death stands as an urgent call to action to ensure that all the residents of Toronto have access to the basics for good health – including a good home.
Everyone in Toronto, the well-housed and those without any housing, should join together to demand that our municipal, provincial and federal governments join with the community and private sectors in a comprehensive initiative to end homelessness in Toronto. Other cities, including Calgary with its dynamic and multi-sectoral Calgary Homeless Foundation, have robust initiatives that are making a positive difference.
In 2006, the Wellesley Institute published our Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto. Seven years later, some of the data may be out-of-date, but the overall goal remains within our reach: We can end homelessness in Toronto by ensuring that everyone has a good place to call home, with proper supports and services. It’s long past time to launch that community-wide campaign.