More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
My brother, the homeless person
March 11, 2005
by Glen Grunwald
The Toronto Star

The calls come at all hours of the day and night. Most often collect, but not always. Sometimes there's a prim, somewhat disapproving, message which lets me know the call is collect and coming from a jail. I never know what to expect when I pick up the phone. The calm voice of a middle-aged man? His alter ego, the conspiracy theorist? Or the alcoholic who will say anything for a chance to calm his demons?

My brother, my only sibling, is homeless and schizophrenic in America.

His 25-plus years on the road has given me a unique perspective on the homeless debate here in Toronto. Like Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger, who has frequently written on the homeless, I have sadly concluded that homelessness and mental illness are inextricably linked.

In my brother's case, the viciousness of the disease and the capriciousness it provokes, makes it almost impossible to help him. An example: I once flew to Seattle to get his signature on papers so he could have his own bank card and I could then send him money without the hassles of a Western Union wire transfer. He refused because he saw a conspiracy behind my motives.

Gary was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1978. He was only 20, poised on brink of manhood, and a lifelong love of aviation had just culminated in his certification as an aircraft mechanic. With his illness, the job he had landed at O'Hare airport in Chicago evaporated, along with the rest of his life.

The skies guide Gary today, causing him to beat an odd flight path between Tucson, Ariz. — where his fascination of airplanes leads him to the boneyards of moth-balled planes — and Seattle, Wash., which is home to Boeing Field and the national Museum of Flight.

It was in Tucson two years ago, in the summer of 2003, that Gary almost died, not once, but twice. He had been in jail there, incarcerated on one of the dozens of petty charges he's faced over the years.

The prison had released him in the early hours of morning, simply shoving him out the door with no food, no clothes and nowhere to go.

As usual, we got the call. And, as usual, I had the same impossible dilemma my family faced.over the years: Did I send him money so he could have a roof over his head and food to eat, and then wait for the inevitable crisis to put him back in hospital or jail?

Or try to force him to get the health care he so desperately needs — but does not want — by forcing him into an impotent and seemingly non-existent mental health-care system in Arizona?

In this case, I told him to find a motel. I never send him money directly anymore (beyond what he needs immediately to eat) because he ends up drinking it away or, worse, being beaten and robbed.

Gary called back a while later to say he'd found a small motel in the Howard Johnson chain where the staff didn't seem to be alarmed by his appearance or demeanour. I talked to the desk, then sent them my credit card number.

My brother distinguished himself within an hour by robbing the tip jar from the front counter. But instead of calling the police, these people called us. It was the start of a summer-long relationship.

The room came with a free breakfast in the morning. One of the women rummaged through the lost-and-found to pull out clothing to fit his emaciated 6-foot, 4-inch frame.

Another one would invite him to share her pizza on the night shift. And she would always make an extra hot chocolate before bedtime.

It was a heart-warming story but I long ago learned there are no happy endings.

Gary seemed to have the run of the place and the support of its staff but he had no steady medication and no professional overseeing his mental health. He began to have breakdowns, hallucinations that would scare other guests. He would phone, making wild claims about how my wife had murdered his (non-existent) family. When he got like this, the motel staff would call 911, the hospital would hold him for a day or two, medicate him, release him and then the cycle would start again.

Worst of all, as the summer wore on, he began to talk about killing himself. We returned from the wedding of Raptor basketball player Alvin Williams in Philadelphia to find my brother had been hospitalized for what the psychiatric staff deemed to be an "accidental" overdose.

The diagnosis stuck despite my protestations that he had been talking about suicide and they released him.

The real crisis came a week later. Gary called our house to say he was going to kill himself with a knife.

While I spoke to him, my wife called the front desk on her cell phone. The woman called back a minute or so later. "It's bad news," she said. "There's blood everywhere and I don't know where he is."

When the paramedics arrived, they found him in the bushes where he'd crawled off to die. "I don't know how anybody survived this," said the man on the phone. "The room is totalled. There's blood everywhere."

But Gary did survive. We called the motel the next day to take responsibility for the damages.

"Don't worry about it," said the manager soothingly. "It's just blood. We can clean it up."

When thanked for all the care they had shown Gary, he brushed it aside. "It sounds kinda weird but, you know, it's like he's one of the family."

My wife hung up. And wept at the unexpected kindness of strangers.

However well-intentioned, it was a kindness that was killing Gary. They gave him, literally, just enough rope to hang himself. It is a situation which I believe is played out time and again on the streets of Toronto.

I see Gary in every makeshift bed and inhabited grate. I see him in the hollow eyes of those who hold their hands out for help. I see him in the screeching alcoholics who frighten passersby. I understand why people shy away. It is easier to dehumanize than to deal with the difficult person inside.

Much has been written lately about Mayor David Miller's "gentle" ban on sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square. That plan, which will cost $18.4 million in its first year, will also hire six new outreach workers, add about $11.2 million to fund 1,000 new affordable housing units, and open a new emergency shelter.

In response, the plan was attacked by all sides, in some cases labeled "soft" and in others, "draconian." Much of the fire was directed toward the so-called gentle nudging of the homeless from our sight.

I recognize the complexity of the issue of homelessness and the need for a multi-pronged solution. It affects all of us in Toronto as a moral issue and is a direct reflection of our quality of life.

One component of the solution is the creation of affordable housing supported by all levels of government.

This has been a longstanding concern of my employer, the Toronto Board of Trade, and we recognize that it's too expensive for governments to tackle alone.

The private sector is willing to be part of the solution but, in return, public policy must make is easier and simpler to acquire land and financing.

On a personal note, I believe there must be further formal linkage between homelessness and mental illness.

No amount of nudging would help my brother; he needed an outright shove. Frightened by his near-death experience, he agreed to return to Seattle where he is a familiar face to many of the mental health workers there.

It hasn't been easy. Once there, tough love soon devolved to no love and he wound up in jail for a lengthy stretch. He finally ended up before a judge who simply shortened his leash. Gary is on probation. He has a caring social worker who has scrupulously managed his Social Security Disability benefits while he was away. My brother is often too sick to even pick up his own money.

So now, he has his own room in a supervised hotel, and money doled out to him from a small but steady source of income.

He reports to his parole officer every day. If he drinks, he's back in jail. If he takes drugs, he goes back. If he doesn't take his medications, there too, are consequences.

Another dilemma. An example of the criminalization of mental illness? Yes.

The only way my brother will participate in the medical programs he so desperately needs without being institutionalized or jailed? Yes.

An alternative to his homelessness? Yes.

Should there be a better way? Yes.

Until then, I want my brother to be a criminal rather than another suicide. I want my brother to be in a supervised rooming house instead of living on the street.

Part of my brother's new probation package has been his own telephone calling card and he uses it frequently, just to check in. He's calmer and, although I can't honestly say he's happy, there are days you can say he's content.

And he has moments of clarity that are wrenching.

My brother called one night and asked how I was doing. "I've got a cold," I said somewhat peevishly.

"I haven't had one in a long time," he replied.

"Well, you're not missing much."

There was a beat before he spoke.

"Oh," he said. "I miss plenty."

It breaks my heart to think on it. But I know it to be true.

Glen Grunwald is president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade and a former general manager of the Toronto Raptors.


What a sad tale. It breaks my heart to think of all the human anguish associated with this sort of thing.

I find myself thinking, often, that we should be able to "fix" things for people like Gary. I rant and rave about the inhumanity of man. Yet, this story points out how really difficult it is to deal with the complexities of these situations. It gives one much to think about.


I can really relate to this guy! I have a homeless brother too out west and he also has mental health issues. It's so hard and scary! The phone calls are at all hours and sometimes don't come for a month. I have done everything I can for him and I no longer send money because that just goes to drugs or booze. I always have the hope that if I don't enable him he will find his bottom faster. It really breaks my heart because he is my only brother.


I can really relate to this guy! I have a homeless brother too out west and he also has mental health issues. It's so hard and scary! The phone calls are at all hours and sometimes don't come for a month. I have done everything I can for him and I no longer send money because that just goes to drugs or booze. I always have the hope that if I don't enable him he will find his bottom faster. It really breaks my heart because he is my only brother.
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