St. Stephen's Community House participants

Toby Nicol

Toby NicolToby Nicol

Lifeline to a wonderful future

Toby never really felt like he belonged. After a quiet upbringing in northern Ontario—Dad was a pastor, Mom a nurse—he graduated high school with little idea of what might come next. He tried a semester each of business and early childhood education, but “nothing really stuck,” says the now 35-year-old. He was lost.

A feeling of aimlessness triggered a new episode of depression and anxiety, which Toby had lived with since he was a child. The result, he says, was a young adulthood spent dabbling in drugs. His problems only intensified when he moved to Toronto in his early 20s. Despite plans to find a job and an apartment, Toby’s substance use worsened. He soon found himself both jobless and homeless. He moved into a shelter, which provided a roof over his head but little else in the way of stability.

The Toronto Community Addiction Team at St. Stephen’s Community House connected with him during one of his admissions to a detox unit, helping him take the first step on the path to a more secure future.

Toby responded immediately to treatment for his substance use and started seeing a counsellor for his mental health issues. He began saving money and then volunteering at the agency’s drop-in centre, which supports individuals experiencing homelessness. When a job opportunity became available, Toby became a peer support worker at the agency.
Finally, something was sticking.

“A lot of times when people experience challenges in their lives around housing, that becomes the thing that defines them,” says Sanda Kazazic, St. Stephen’s drop-in coordinator. “We talk about ‘the homeless,’ but these are individuals who aren’t just defined by their housing situation; they have skills and experiences they can bring to the table.”

That’s certainly the case with Toby. Today, he speaks up as an activist for other people just like him who have experienced homelessness and mental health challenges.

He’s also proud to have a stable, secure roof over his head. He’s surrounded by friends and has a new-found sense of purpose and belonging.

“I go to City Hall and do presentations. I have a one-bedroom subsidized apartment,” he says. “Every second week, my co-workers come to my place and we have a meal together and watch movies. It’s a wonderful life.”

Story by Ashley Durk, United Way Toronto & York Region

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