Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke. Photos by Rishma Lucknauth

“Homelessness doesn’t start here, this is where it ends,” said Kevin Clarke, tapping his finger on the table of the deli which we sat in, indicating downtown Toronto. He donned the only formal wear he has—an oversized blue suit, faded pink shirt and a blue and green patterned tie which looked like a swatch from an outdated hotel bed covering. In light of this, there was something aristocratic about him.

And aristocratic he should look. Mr. Clarke is the most famous homeless man in Toronto.  So much so, that he even has his own Wikipedia page—the proverbial sign that you have made it.

So why is Clarke homeless?

He has been a resident of the streets since 1998 after his East York auto-business failed. Prior to that, he ran for office in the 1994 East York municipal election.

But none of that matters now. He’s homeless once again and this year marks 14 years that he has lived without shelter—officially that is. Only months shy of turning 18, Clarke recalls leaving the home of his mother to gain his own sense of independence. “My mother told me, ‘go to college’ or work and pay for half of the rent,” said Clarke. He took what little he could and left home; going to the only place he could think of—his high school gymnasium where he felt a sense of home, having wrestled for a number of years.

“It was all good for a couple of days, I did whatever I wanted,” said Clarke. He was excited to tell this story, his eyes lit up and his body became animated. Hands clapped between his knees, he looked like he just received the best punch line of life. “But then the rain came, and when it rains, it pours!”

Stranded and wet with an inflated ego, Clarke retreated to a friend’s house where he spent the remainder of the time. “There are two reasons why kids run away. One, the parent is disobedient or two, the kid is disobedient,” he said, fingers up in a peace sign.

It’s difficult to get Clarke to stay on subject. The rest of this anecdote is lost somewhere in his mind where ideas seem to float in an out in a shuffle. He begins anecdotes with enthusiasm but somehow always end up pointing in the direction of the Toronto mayoral election. Some may consider him schizophrenc due to years of drug use.  But it seems as if he reverts back to the election because it guarantees him his most valuable posession—the basic right to run for office, regardless of his chronic homelessness.

His name may not be the most knowing thing about him but someone is always bound to recognize his face or the outlandish garb he often wears for the purpose of protest. He has no fixed address and isn’t guaranteed a daily meal, but Kevin Clarke has a place among Toronto’s candidates for mayor.  At least he did, one month ago.

This year marks his fourth run for city mayor. He ran in 2000, 2003 and 2006 on a platform that hopes to end poverty, police abuse, homelessness and support todays youth. But on March 29th, he crashed a mayoral debate in Scarborough to which only the six front-runners of the election were invited. Moments after his alleged disturbance, police were called in and Clarke was dragged out of the debate.

Two days later, he withdrew from the race which he feels so passionately about—the only thing he feels truly comfortable speaking about. Throughout his four runs for mayor, Clarke has struggled to remain a serious candidate. He is known for his loud outbursts, abrupt protests and multiple arrests—and those only include the incidents that take place within the mayoral debates. There are the numerous tickets—over $10,00 worth of fines and a guarantee that he can be arrested for any behaviour considered to be public disobedience by the police.

Even with the arrests, he’s on friendly terms with half of Toronto’s police force and has a strange appreciation for the OPP who he says are the “good ones.”

“They leave you alone,” said Clarke, in his outside voice. “You can be as loud as you want or say anything and they’ll leave you alone.”

“Any officer who has not arrested me should run for office,” said Clarke.

Clarke is a regular at Old City Hall where he traverses from one sector to the next seeking help to find documents, flirting with women or asking for edible alms. His office is a corner in the Salvation Army room and his briefcase, a plastic bag. He’s disarming and conversational. But still judged based on the place he sleeps at night—like the woman who thought she could help the city hall security guard identify Clarke so that I could get to my meeting with him on time. “He’s the crazy guy that’s always shouting outside,” she said.

But there are some who see him differently, like Toronto chef Tyler Wesley. “People look at him and they think because he’s homeless he’s crazy. But he’s a good guy, “said Wesley. “He’ll come by the restaurant and we’ll give him food. What he’s doing, running for mayor, it’s really good. It’s positive to see someone doing something like that.”

What many don’t realize about Clarke is that there is nothing abnormal about him other than the fact that he doesn’t sleep in the same bed every night. He has a family in Ajax—sisters, brothers, cousins—all of whom are successful and remain an integral part of his life. His mother is a cook at the Renaissance Drug Treatment Centre and just celebrated her 65th birthday on April 3rd. His brother, Rupert, is a computer technician at St. Mike’s or Sick Kids Hospital—Clarke doesn’t remember which one exactly. His sister, Jackie, works for the Ontario government. He can list all of this cousins and their spouses who are close to him—perhaps the ones he’ll pay a visit to every year or so.

He keeps memories close because on some days, it’s all he has. “When you start to forget something, do you know how you can remember it?” asked Clarke. “Just concentrate, think real hard and it’ll come back to you.” And he remembers well. Everything from the school he went t0 to his place of origin in St. Ann’s parish in Jamaica.  He remembers the child he used to teach when he worked as a 5th grade teacher at Chester Lee Junior Public School.

“He’s been a regular here for five years now, “said Henrietta Stone, manager at Mercatto Café in Toronto. “Everyone knows him and he is always very friendly when he comes. We try to do what we can to help him and simply be his friend.”

Mercatto is just a couple oblocks away from the one place which can be considered Clarke’s home, Old City Hall. The sidewalk just outside the building often has a large heart chalked in on one corner and the words “CLARKE FOR MAYOR” on the opposite end. “That’s love,” said Clarke, pointing to his latest artwork.

Clarke turned 45 this year. He has liver problems, very few teeth and his vision is half gone. And while his future success as Toronto mayor is questionable, there’s an abundance of hope in his heart.

_________________________

*This article was written in April 2010.

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