In his latest crime thriller, author and lawyer Robert Rotenberg explores the themes of homelessness and the growing chasm between the extremely rich and poor in Toronto. Photo: Ted Feld
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Robert Rotenberg on His New Thriller ‘Downfall’ and Homelessness
The Toronto criminal lawyer draws on 30 years experience defending everyone from the super rich to the super poor to write about the deep roots of economic disparity / BY Robert Rotenberg / February 3rd, 2021
During the more than 30 years that I’ve been a criminal defence lawyer in downtown Toronto, I’ve defended all manner of people, from the super rich to the poor and homeless. Being a lawyer has given me a unique and close-up view of the city. In particular, I’ve had a front row seat to watch the dramatic growth in economic disparity in the city, and the explosion of the too-often unseen world of the homeless. I’ve seen this crisis coming for a long time.
As well as working full-time as a lawyer, I am also novelist. I’ve written six legal thrillers, all set in Toronto. One of the advantages of being a writer is that I get to put my observations down on the page. In my first book, Old City Hall, which was published in 2009, I highlighted this gap between rich and poor, and, in the last decade, I’ve watched as the homeless situation has only gotten worse. Today there are an estimated 10,000 men and women and teenagers sleeping on the streets of Toronto every night. Their average life expectancy is a half of that of non-homeless Canadians. Half. Think of that — in one of the richest countries in the world.
Many of my long-standing clients are among those numbers. They drift in and out of jails, shelters, sometimes living under bridges, always on the margins.
I’ve also seen the other, too-often overlooked, side of homelessness. The families and friends who are left behind, hurt, angry and afraid: kids whose parent scoops their birthday gift money to buy drugs; grandparents forced to raise their grandchildren when parents abandon them; angry ex-spouses and siblings, who watch helplessly as their previously healthy wife or husband or brother or sister steals from their own family and deserts them.
Seeing the Unseen
My novels are all set in present-day Toronto. A novelist — and a lawyer — has to try to see the unseen, what is really going on now, and the things that will be relevant in a few years. In each of my books, I deal with what I see as a current issue in the city: stray bullets killing an innocent passersby; an out-of-control city mayor, the condo building craze and its fallout.
But it takes at least two years from the time I get an idea for a novel (and, since my books are murder mysteries, where I want to put a dead body) until it is published. For my latest novel, Downfall, I chose a long time ago to make the central theme homelessness and the growing chasm in the city between extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
In one chapter, a young reporter who is determined to do a story about poverty in the city goes to a drop-in centre for homeless women. It’s located in “a nondescript brick building” that was unnoticed by “impatient-looking drivers talking on their cell phones, on their way to work.” I did many drafts before taking it to Jesse (not his real name), who’s been a client of mine for more than three decades, since he was 12 years old. I’ve seen Jesse in courts and jails all over Ontario, and this winter he was living under a bridge. He’s extremely bright and a great reader (in prison he’d whip through the library cart and he read all my books).
I took him to a Tim Hortons near my office, slipped him my usual 20-dollar bill, bought him a bunch of food and gift cards, and had him read the draft.
“What do you think?” asked him.
He pointed out a few things for me to correct, then said: “Not bad Bobby.” I considered it a real compliment, and his insight was invaluable.
It seems I have been prescient. The COVID crisis has brought the homeless crisis to the fore. Encampments have been set up not just in river valleys, but in parks and sidewalks all across the city and throughout Canada. The problem is out in the open for all to see. The complex issue of the lack of adequate public housing—so long talked about, so little dealt with—is finally firmly on the political agenda.
Why, you might ask, write about a social problem in a work of fiction, when there are endless studies, reports, recommendations, experts? That’s the joy, the power, and the importance of writing fiction. A good novel can create a world that holds up a mirror to society, illuminates reality. If we want to know what it was like in London during the industrial revolution, what do we read? Dickens. California during the dust bowl? Steinbeck. Montreal during the 1980s? Richler.
Writers often talk about the phrase “show, don’t tell.” In other words, a novel is not a lecture but an illustration, and the author is a chronicler. To show this, in Downfall I created a fictional homeless encampment in the Humber Valley right up against the fence of an equally fictional wealthy private golf course.
The Root of Homelessness
What are the causes of homelessness? Through my characters I can point out some of the issues that I’ve seen in courtrooms and jails cells over the years: the closing down of mental-health facilities and the lack of follow-up community support; the downloading of public housing from the federal to provincial to municipal governments; the institutionalized social network that has grown up around homelessness; the easy profiteering of drug companies and people on the fringes of the medical profession; the politicisation of the issue; new and powerful street drugs; generational poverty. Etcetera. Etcetera.
What are the solutions? Don’t think for a moment think there are easy answers. And right now Canadians are caught in a halfway zone on the question of rich and poor, homes and homelessness. We like to think of ourselves as a kinder and gentler society. But are we? I’m not convinced.
On the one hand, when we look to the United States, we see extremes. Conspicuous consumption and outlandish wealth, with the richest of the rich sheltering in gated communities. Such a stark and heartbreaking contrast to cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco where more than a million people live on the street.
On the other hand, we see Finland, the only first-world country that has truly met the challenge of homelessness head on. They made a concerted national commitment to provide housing and support for every citizen. And they have done so at an overall cost saving, to say nothing of saving the human toll of homelessness.
The whole issue is a Rubik’s Cube of conundrums, ideas that lead to unseen consequences.
No Easy Answers
Think about people sleeping in public parks. In Toronto, tent encampments are mostly in the poorest neighbourhoods. That means that poor and hard-working families, with no cottages or country houses to run to, no longer have a place to bring their children to play, must abandon their community gardens and see them filled up with weeds and trash. Does this picture make sense in the richest city in Canada, the fastest growing city in North America?
Think free drug-injection sites are the answer? Perhaps for some. But talk to the mother of a former client of mine who despises them. Why? Because her daughter, once a top university student, was at 22 years old a drug addict, who one day when I took her out for coffee told me: “I love free injection sites, best way ever to find a new dealer.” In desperation, her mother used to lock her daughter in her bedroom, until one night she snuck out and overdosed.
I don’t pretend to have the answers, but the one thing I know for sure: the less we do the worse the problem will become. The status quo is the enemy. Take for example Seaton House in downtown Toronto. It is the largest men’s shelter in the city, perhaps in Canada. All the experts agree that having such a gigantic facility is a big mistake. What is needed are smaller protected housing units. Years and years ago I met an enthusiastic architect who had a whole new plan for redevelopment of the facility and in 2009 city council approved a plan to demolish the present structure and redevelop it on a smaller, human scale. That was 12 years ago. Twelve lost years. In November 2020, Toronto’s mayor announced plans for a complete revitalization plan for not only Seaton House, but the whole rundown street it is on.
And so we live in hope.
I saw Jesse the other day. It was a good day, because we’d just finished his last court appearance and for the first time in 30 years he no longer was in jail, on bail, or waiting for trial. And he had a home. “It’s a bachelor apartment of my own. My very first.” He reached into his sweatshirt and pulled out a set of keys and a fob he has on a string around his neck. But then I ask he how he feels about it. “It’s scary,” he says.
What about COVID and the homeless situation? He thinks it’s getting worse and people sleep in parks because they don’t want to be “trapped in a tuna can with people who have it or might have it.”
People often ask me how I write novels and practice law. The answer is simple. I couldn’t imagine not doing both. Of course being a criminal lawyer informs my writing and helps me create realistic characters my readers care about and write realistic courtroom scenes. But it works the other way too. Practicing criminal law allows me and my partners to do our part, however small, to assist those who need it most. People always ask me how I do both. I just do it. Life would be boring without both.
My goal as a novelist is to tell the story of the city, and in Downfall to shine a light on the dark side of urban life that cannot simply be wished away.
Robert Rotenberg is the author of several bestselling novels, including Old City Hall, The Guilty Plea, Stray Bullets, Stranglehold, and Heart of the City. His latest book Downfall was published on Feb. 2. He also writes for television, teaches writing, and is one of Toronto’s top criminal lawyers. Visit him at RobertRotenberg.com or follow him on twitter @RobertRotenberg.