This incredible, true story of a young woman’s journey from the halls of Toronto’s elite private schools to living on the street as a drug addict to her current role as a kindergarten teacher explores the complexity of addressing and assisting homeless youth.
Gone Girl: I was a private school kid from Rosedale—until I ended up on the street
Written by Emily Wright
“My parents gave me a great chance at life. I grew up in a three-bedroom house in Lawrence Park, where I spent weekends riding my bike and making mud pies with my younger brother. At Christmas, my parents took us on vacations to Hawaii and London and Kenya. In the summers, we rented a cottage in Muskoka, where we built teepees and chased frogs. One year, knowing how much I loved acting and tap dancing, my parents sent me to an elite arts camp in the Catskills.
…The first night I was homeless, a warm evening in May 2004, I slept on a piece of cardboard outside College Park.
Every time I dozed off that night, I’d wake up with a start, disoriented and scared for my safety. At around 2 a.m., a cop poked me awake and told me I couldn’t sleep there. I had no idea where to go; he didn’t tell me there was a shelter a couple of blocks away. This was the first time I’d experienced real hunger. I didn’t know where to get food. I didn’t know you could walk into a McDonald’s or Starbucks and ask for a cup of water. I wandered west to city hall, where a group of men told me I was on their block and ordered me to clear out.
The next day, I called my sober house friend and met up with her and a few of her friends who lived on the street. They told me about the emergency shelters—places like Covenant House where I could get a bed for the night and TTC fare. They took me to the Salvation Army van in Moss Park, which gave out food and bandages. That first day, as I stood in line at the van for a meal, someone offered to hold my backpack.
When I turned around, he was gone, along with all my stuff.
Over the next few weeks, I learned how to fend for myself. I hung around a food truck at city hall, where the cooks gave me leftover burgers when they closed up at the end of the night. During the day, I taught myself how to panhandle. Getting in people’s faces didn’t work; instead, I made more money sitting on the ground, so I was beneath the passersby. If I wanted something, I had to lower myself. I kept coming back to the same place I’d spent my first night, just outside College Park. Staying in the same spot meant the daily commuters got used to me and started giving me more money. I tried to call my parents from a shelter every few days to check in; occasionally, they’d drive down and give me food.
One of my regular visitors on the street was a drug dealer. He’d stop by every day and hand me a few bucks. Better yet, sometimes he’d bring a hit of coke or a joint. At that point, I was doing whatever drugs I could find—acid, ketamine, crushed prescription pills. A few weeks after I met him, he gave me my first hit of crack cocaine.
In high school, I’d avoided crack. Now, I was poor and homeless, and not above anything.
Crack was the most intense high I’d ever experienced. Unlike coke, which took about five minutes before you felt it drip down your throat, crack was instantaneous. In Chinatown, I bought some herbal remedy in a glass bottle, broke off the top and made a pipe. Crack quickly became my drug of choice—every time I made $5 panhandling, I’d buy a hit. It made me feel invincible. Some days I’d walk 30 blocks with worn-through shoes and blisters on my feet, and I wouldn’t feel any pain. I’d congregate with other street kids—in College Park, in alleyways on Gerrard, on the Ryerson campus—and share what we had. I knew that as long as I had my next high, I’d be okay.“