Liam Casey, The Canadian Press
A last−minute assist has sent Kevin Ackroyd’s life into overtime.
While sitting on a patio in downtown Toronto on a warm June day, he thinks back to his life four months earlier when he faced a return to the streets.
His home at the time, a room at the Royal Oak Inn that was temporarily converted to a shelter, was set to close. Then came an even more crushing blow: doctors told him he had three months to live after they diagnosed him with stage−four liver cancer.
Despondent, he splayed out like a starfish on his bed.
“I was getting ready to off myself,” Ackroyd, 61, says. He was broke, addicted to drugs and did not know where he would live.
But then came a knock at the door. Starr Dedam, a support worker with an organization that helps Toronto’s homeless population, had come to check on him.
“She pulled me out of it,” Ackroyd says.
That helping hand came from Kensington Health, a non−profit organization that provides long−term and hospice care among other services.
Dr. Nadine Persaud, executive director of Kensington Hospice, says the facility began two years ago collecting data on whether the socio−economic conditions of its patients matched the surrounding community.
The results revealed a mismatch. The hospice set a goal of dedicating 25 per cent of its palliative care beds to people who are precariously housed.
Beyond bed spaces, Persaud says Kensington is also committed to considering a patient’s social circumstances when delivering care, which previously was based largely on medical needs.
“We are doing a lot of work on how we revamp the philosophy of palliative care,” she says.
The hospice’s medical director, Dr. Naheed Dosani, says the approach is “all about radical love and caring for people who deserve that care.”
Kensington has hired a health navigator who is dedicated to supporting patients coming from shelters or the streets and will soon hire a peer worker who has lived through homelessness.
Dedam had heard about Kensington’s program before she and Ackroyd crossed paths, and she continues to visit him at the hospice he now calls home.
“I love you,” Dedam whispers to Ackroyd as he leans in to hug her, tears falling down his face.
He remembers the day when he told her he felt abandoned.
“You’re not going to be abandoned, I’m here,” Dedam recalls telling Ackroyd. She would see him every day from then on.
Homelessness is increasing across Ontario with an affordability crisis that has become significantly worse as the COVID−19 pandemic abates.
Life without a home is a killer.
“People who experience homelessness are 28 times more likely to have hepatitis C, five times more likely to have heart disease and four times more likely to have cancer,” Dosani says.
“And homelessness is cutting life expectancies in half. The average age of death is between 34 and 47 years old, compared to 77 to 82 years old for people who have homes.”
Ackroyd was born in Huntsville, Ont., a few hour’s drive north of Toronto. His mother was a drug addict, he says, which left Ackroyd and his two younger sisters in and out of group homes. He remains unsure of his father’s identity.
Growing up, he found refuge on the ice as a left-winger in his favourite sport, hockey.
Ackroyd was in and out of trouble and on and off the streets by the time he was a teenager.
“I didn’t know how to get a job or learn anything proper,” he says. “I survived the best way I could doing armed robberies, doing B&Es or whatever I had to do to raise money.”
He’d use the money on cheap motels in the winter and would sleep in tents the rest of the year.
Ackroyd spent about four years behind bars, mostly during his 20s. He served as an air cadet, worked in the army briefly and took care of homes for a landlord for a spell.
Some three decades ago, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He hears voices in his head that feel real to him. Hospice living makes it easier for Ackroyd to consistently take his medication.
He lives with bouts of depression, which have worsened with his terminal diagnosis.
“It’s hard not to be sad,” he says.
Ackroyd spent much of his life living in parks and on the streets of Toronto.
He is also an addict who dabbled with heroin, speed, meth, PCP and LSD over the years.
“I still like to do drugs −− I love cocaine −− and I still have a drug problem,” he says with a big grin.
“I’m trying to get off drugs and these people here make it easier for me because they keep an eye on me whenever I go out.”
He thinks about dying a lot.
“Why me, why now, why cancer, why couldn’t they catch it in time?” he says as he struggles to speak. Tears fall down his gaunt cheeks.
He has some comfort at the hospice.
“I got no worries −− when I wake up, they serve me breakfast in bed,” he says.
Seven plants sit on his windowsill, each named after people who help him, including several nurses at the hospice.
Looking back at his life, he has a few tips for others who struggle.
“There’s a lot of helpers out there, you’re better off asking for help than, say, robbing people,” Ackroyd says.
There are a few things left he’d like to do.
He’s writing down his life story. He hopes his eight children will read it, but doesn’t want them to worry about him now.
“Don’t run down here and hover over my shoulder waiting for me to die,” he says.
He hasn’t spoken to his mother or two sisters in decades, but he would like to connect with one of his sisters, Linda.
“I want to tell her I love her, I miss her and would love to see her again,” he says amid a wave of fresh tears.
Last week, Ackroyd checked one item off his bucket list when he caught a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. The ticket was a gift from Oneday Dreams, which helps Canadian adults living with a terminal illness to realize an end−of−life dream.
“It meant a lot to me,” he says. “It was special.”
Ackroyd holds out hope he can make it a few more months to see his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs play when the next season begins.
“That’s the dream,” he says as his grin returns. “I want season tickets.”
banner image: The Canadian Press