Art offers Robert Lacquaniti a safe haven, but the streets of Toronto do not. Lacquaniti has associates on the street yet, they are not his friends. Instead, they serve as an occupational hazard.
“I don’t like being around them. All they do is talk about drugs and who to rob next,” Lacquaniti said. “I don’t pay attention to them. But I can’t avoid them either.”
The money he makes drawing and selling his art, he uses to pay bills. Sometimes, he can afford a fancy lunch, new clothes and art supplies. Lacquaniti’s “office” is a popular location outside a Second Cup next to the old, red-brick Gooderham building in the city’s entertainment district. Passersby often leave him change and some buy him food. But those he likes the most are his customers, the tourists who buy his art, he said. At night, he sleeps at the Maxwell Meighen Men’s Hostel.
Robert Lacquaniti has been homeless for just over a year. He has managed to keep himself safe, at least for now.
According to Councillor Joe Cressy, poverty is above 20 per cent for adults in the city and it is the inequality capital of Canada according to the United Way.
“The housing market has a strained supply of affordable rental housing,” Cressy said. “We’re in the midst of a serious crisis affecting far too many residents in our city and all levels of government need to act.”
Once the sun comes up, Lacquaniti is out grabbing breakfast at a community centre or church.
Jim Houston is the co-ordinator of Peoples Presence at the Holy Trinity Church, an unofficial drop-in for individuals on the streets to stop, visit and get breakfast.
“But once it’s three o’clock, it’s hard to ask the guys to leave,” Houston said. “This is because we have volunteers and they have other things to do.”
Doors open at 11 a.m. most days and men pour in asking for sandwiches. But, the church does not always have food.
“There is a Korean couple from another church who brings food on Sundays. Sometimes they don’t, so we make do with what we have,” Houston said. “Donations are made and we’re happy. We help anyway we can.”
Lacquaniti said he has two siblings living in million-dollar homes. He said he has not seen them in two years. They know he is homeless, but they do not seem to care he said.
“I’m your brother. You can invite me for a BBQ,” Lacquaniti said.
Moreover, homelessness is a complex issue and there are many causes Cressy said.
“Once we adequately fund both housing and programs, we can help to transition people from being on the streets and in vulnerable situations into stable and permanent housing,” he said.
In 1994, a fall from a two-storey building left Lacquaniti paralyzed and unemployed for three years. Yet, Robert Lacquaniti is a fighter. He said when his doctor prescribed him a wheelchair and told him he could never walk; he refused to accept this fate. He told his doctor he had other plans. Today, Lacquaniti walks. But, his injury has prevented him from keeping a job and the lack of government disability funds has cost him his home, an apartment.
According to Councillor Mike Layton, the definition of affordable housing in Toronto is a 100 per cent of the average rent. This he said is unattainable to many people earning minimum wage, let alone people on the Ontario Disability Support Program.
Lacquaniti only goes back to the shelter to sleep. He said the people there make him sad.
“All they do is sleep. They’re lazy,” he said. “If not, they want to borrow money from me for drugs, or they plan to rob other poor people.”
Lacquaniti has his name up on many community centres and is on a wait-list for affordable housing. While, the wait-list for affordable housing consists of more than 100,000 people Cressy said.
“As a required solution, my ward looks to secure affordable housing as part of every development that comes in,” Cressy said.
Shelter life is depressing so Lacquaniti gets up and out bright and early. His shelter buddies know about his art adventures, but he said he doesn’t share any of that information with them. He said his art supplies, worth two-hundred dollars, were once stolen while he slept at Allan Gardens.
As a result, Lacquaniti resorts to silence and making do with what he has, until he finds a place to call home.