It was a rainy night in Toronto, damp enough to keep most people indoors. But not Paul Croutch, who was wrapped in garbage bags and sleeping on a bench in Moss Park where he was attacked by two army reservists who broke his ribs, fractured his back, ruptured his spleen and kicked him repeatedly in the head. At the time of his assault, Croutch was carrying a Salvation Army Gateway business card in his pocket. Gateway counselors were immediately called to the hospital and stood by his side until he was finally unplugged from life support systems. At the request of his family, Croutch’s ashes still remain at the Gateway, a shelter and drop-in center for adults experiencing homelessness in the downtown core of Toronto.
Croutch lived some of his last days at the Gateway, where he and Dion Oxford became friends. “It was a painful, bittersweet honour to be a part of his life,” says Oxford, who spoke Tuesday at the First Annual Day of the Homeless and Memorial for Paul Croutch. “The reason I stay doing this work after 20 years is because I get the privilege of meeting people like Paul.”
Because Croutch was unable to take care of his appearance and hygiene in the latter stages of his life, it was easy, says Oxford, “to right him off as someone with very little value, shrug him off as just another man on the streets and underestimate his abilities.”
But as Oxford grew to know Croutch, taking the time to peel off those surface layers, it became clear to him that this homeless man was a lot more than a disheveled man on the street.
“He was a man of brilliance,” says Oxford, Executive Director at the Gateway. “A man with an incredible memory of names, facts and dates. He was an educated journalist. A father. A son. A friend. A man respected by the street community.”
So how did this well respected journalist end up living in the streets of one of Canada’s wealthiest cities?
Paul Croutch’s life was difficult right from the beginning. Abandoned by his parents at the age of five, he was placed in an orphanage and grew up in a succession of foster homes. Later, he worked at industrial jobs until co-founding a company that produced plastic manufacturing machines. After a disagreement with his business partner, he and his wife Marilyn moved to British Columbia where Paul eventually launched a weekly newspaper.
As Croutch’s battle with mental illness became more severe, he sold the newspaper, began to drift and eventually ended up on the streets of Toronto near the end of the 90’s.
“Paul had an artistic side and during good spells he would create artwork with supplies provided by Street Health,” says Charles Hill, Chair of the Good Neighbours’ Club where Croutch was a member. “Even though he thought little of himself he was known to help people who were in the same situation.”
But as is the case with many homeless, Croutch was vulnerable and became an easy target for the strong and the angry. “The Paul Croutches of Toronto have to have better options than their best option being sleeping on a park bench,” says Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy.
On August 31, 2005, while sleeping on that bench in Moss Park, he became a casualty of intolerance and senseless violence against the city’s homeless population. Like many homeless, Croutch was dealing with poverty, isolation and poor health.
“But he is a catalyst for us to remember all the men who have died on the streets,” says Charles Hill. “One death is one too many.”
By remembering Croutch, the Good Neighbours’ Club promises to rededicate itself to helping the older men in downtown Toronto. Since 1933, the Club has committed to provide services that promote well-being, personal growth and community integration to older men addressing issues of homelessness, social isolation and health in a safe and supportive environment.
About 200 men come to the Club every day to share a good meal, to use the showers and laundry facilities, to get fresh clothes or just to meet other older men. “When one is poor or alone, having a pleasant place to go during the day is the next best thing to having a home,” says Executive Director Bruno Scorsone. “For many, the Club is the only home they have where they can go every day and be welcome.”
Former Lt.Gov. James Bartleman, a strong supporter and patron of the Club, remembers his first meeting with Croutch during one of the Salvation Army breakfast runs. “He was sleeping on a bench,” says Bartleman, in a written statement read by Chief of Staff and Private Secretary of the Lt.Gov. of Ontario Nanda Casucci. “I offered him a cup of coffee which he accepted.”
The two quickly became friends.
“One of the reasons we hit it off so well was that he suffered from a mental illness, an illness I myself suffer and continue to deal with,” says Bartleman. “Like so many others who battle the demons we call paranoia or schizophrenia or depression, Mr. Croutch spent years on the streets but he found a way to survive in part thanks to Gateway and the Good Neighbours’ Club.”
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair says he’s learned a lot about the vulnerable population served by the Good Neighbours’ Club. “Homeless people are victimized far more often than other members of our society,” he says. “And when they are victimized the consequences can be far more devastating than to others who have stronger social safety networks.”
The Memorial Service for Paul Croutch on Tuesday not only commemorated a life that should not be forgotten, but was a grim reminder that the most vulnerable members of our society often live cruel and dangerous lives.
“It’s important to remind ourselves and each other of our responsibilities to the people on the street who need our help the most,” says Blair.
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