“Crystal had whatever she wanted here. We weren’t rich but she got everything that I could possibly give her,” she said. That meant a bedroom decorated with new white wallpaper, with yellows stripes and roses, and a yellow shag rug in a house on an acre of property where the sometimes wild little girl could run free.
During those years she took her father’s last name. Papineau was her family name on her mother’s side.
Papineau loved unicorns and butterflies and was obsessed with Kraft Dinner. At age 8 she would climb up an antenna on the side of house so she could dance on the roof with a neighbourhood friend, said Simser, clearly not amused by that activity.
She developed an early and distinct sense of style, Simser said. “The worse she could put on, the better. We had dresses for her here and she would put on a pair of jogging pants or an old T-shirt. She didn’t want to be pretty.”
Simser said Papineau was beautiful and bright but despite years spent trying to make her feel loved and secure, she never seemed able to overcome challenges with her mental health. She could lash out and acted out more as she grew older, they said.
“You could get close to her, but only close enough. Because she didn’t want to lose you,” said Simser. Papineau was with them until age 15 and soon after was in Toronto. She could always come home but was devoted to her chosen family in the city, said Simser.
She takes some comfort knowing the young woman is at peace now. “I can almost guarantee she is telling me not to cry and worry. She is always going to be here. She is always going to be with me.”
But Simser shares her husband’s anger over how Papineau was found, and like him believes there is a need for better services.
“They have no right putting those so close to women’s shelters knowing those people are freezing and need what is in those boxes,” said Simser. “Maybe they shouldn’t be in them, but they are starving and freezing … I just wish I could get to Toronto. There wouldn’t be a box there. I’d smash every one of them. They need to be off the street.”
While the drop-ins and sites Papineau visited provided a temporary safe haven, advocates and people close to those lost to poverty and homelessness say they shouldn’t exist — that people need more mental health supports and places to live.
“We have all been so angry for so long … you hope to God that something breaks, that people are in the right mood to pay attention to what you have been saying for years and are saying again,” said Meg Inwood, 34, a close friend of Papineau. “There were no beds for her that night. There was nothing in the f—ing city.”
Inwood met Papineau when they were teenagers in Toronto. When Inwood left her home, Papineau took her under her wing.
“She helped show me the ropes. She helped show me how to survive on the street,” Inwood said, adding that they bonded over a deep love for the printed word.
“She, like me, just ate novels for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Inwood said her friend struggled with addiction and mental health problems, and experienced homelessness for periods of her life, although the last year was particularly rough. But no matter what shape she was in, she said, she still always gravitated to others in need or in pain.
“When you were upset, she would not let you push her away and instead of getting mad she would make you feel better,” Inwood said. “She was laughing, you know, but knew how much you were hurting because she had hurt that much, too.” She also kept private the details of her past hardships.
“The fact that the world just kept hammering and hammering her and she never lost that generosity of spirit … it was beautiful.”
Mayor John Tory has called for an expedited review of how donation boxes are licensed and has asked the committee charged with that work to immediately instruct staff to remedy any safety issues identified throughout the process. The city has also pledged to create 1,000 new emergency shelter beds by 2020 and has created a new planning and housing committee.
On Thursday, as Toronto shivered through its first cold weather alert of 2019, the city’s 4,430 emergency beds for women, men and youth were nearly full, according to city data. A block of about 2,850 motel and hotel beds — added to reduce the strain on the system — were 85 per cent full.
An additional 1,034 people took shelter inside drop-ins, the warming centre at Metro Hall, three locations of the Out of the Cold program and the first of the city’s new winter respite sites — domed structures with space for 100 cots.
Despite the persistent winter cold, makeshift encampments remain the living choice of some, often alongside major roads or beneath the Gardiner Expressway. Last week people at some of those sites were told they would face eviction in 14 days, as first reported by the Toronto Sun.
Brad Ross, head of communications for the city, said that members of Toronto’s Streets to Homes Program are working to provide them with access to shelter and housing, or any additional services they need. A key concern, he said, was the risk of fire as people try to stay warm inside tents and makeshift structures. Some sites are also dangerously close to traffic, he said.
“At some point we need to say you can’t camp on the street. We need to remove the structure,” said Ross, speaking with the Star on Saturday. “It becomes a public safety issue, whether for the individual themselves or for the public.”
Several hundred people gathered in the freezing cold to honour Papineau’s memory on Thursday, at a makeshift memorial set up near where she died, and to call on all levels of government to provide more support for people in need.
“This is not a death by misadventure,” said Lesley Wood, with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. “This is death by neglect. Neglect of housing. Neglect of shelters. Neglect of services.”
One place where Papineau was well known was Sistering on Bloor St. W., where women can find safety and support all hours of the day and night.
“Crystal left us a gift. And the gift was the beginning of this gathering,” executive director Patricia O’Connell told mourners at the Thursday night vigil.
“She has given us this opportunity, sadly, to say homelessness in this city, in this province, in this country, is an epidemic,” she said. “Crystal’s death was the result of extreme poverty … we cannot let her death be in vain.”
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar
Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb