Video: North York senior has painful wait for accessible housing
Tam-thanh Doan uses two prosthetic legs and has no fingers on her right hand and is missing parts of the fingers on her left. She is still waiting for an accessible unit to open up in Toronto Community Housing.
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It takes all of Tam-thanh Doan’s strength to haul herself up the 14 wooden stairs, to the second floor of her North York home.
Each step is laboured and precise, a necessity for Doan, 74, who uses two prosthetic legs and has no fingers on her right hand and is missing parts of the fingers on her left.
She is constantly afraid she will fall, or one day become too weak to make the twice-daily climb to her bedroom and the upstairs bathroom, the only one in the house. Staying in bed, she says, feels like she is in jail.
Doan lives in a Toronto Community Housing Corp. townhouse she has called home for about 10 years. She is on a waitlist for an accessible unit, but public housing staff can’t predict when the type of home she needs will be available.
A single mother, who came to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam, Doan has already faced enormous challenges but has held on to her positive outlook.
In August 2016, a kidney stone led to septic shock and the loss of her fingers and lower legs. After months in the hospital and rehabilitation, she came home in January.
From the base of the stairs it is two steps to the landing.
She crosses her left arm across her body and wraps her hand around a wood-topped banister. It creaks and sways as she hauls herself up each step. “You see? Here,” she says, shaking the bottom portion.
Going down, her left hand grasps the banister, she presses the stump of her right arm against the wall and leans back to keep her balance.
The prosthetics are metal rods, capped with thick plastic and packed with padding to cushion the stumps below her knees. Each weighs just over two kilograms. Her “feet” are clad in white leather running shoes, with black trim.
Doan has been on the list since November.
“I have to wait, I know that. But I hope they don’t forget me,” she says, showing the Star her home in late June.
Earlier that month she fell down the stairs and cut her head.
People are processed in chronological order, says Brayden Akers, a spokesperson with the housing provider, via email.
“This provides a fair and equitable process for all tenants in need of an accessible unit; to not place priority on one disability over another,” he says.
Doan lives with her adult son and has asked for a two-bedroom unit and they have identified a list of potential buildings.
Toronto Community Housing has 39 fully-modified units, 225 partially modified units and 10,000 with accessibility features, like a grab bar in the bathroom. There are 52 households on the TCHC accessible waitlist, says Akers.
If partial or fully accessible units open up Doan will be asked if she wants to take a look. If a unit in the regular buildings on their list becomes available housing staff will see if it can be modified.
On top of prioritizing higher needs tenants, the housing provider is struggling to deal with a massive repair backlog, in a city already facing an affordable housing shortage. The waitlist for affordable housing, which includes TCHC housing, in Toronto has topped 181,000 people.
Akers says everything was done to make sure her current home is safe, that they worked with “support agencies to ensure home care supports and assistive devices were in place.”
The Ontario Disability Support Program provided her elevated toilet seat, a wheelchair, a hospital bed, reaching devices and her prosthetic legs.
Doan’s daughter Hilda, 26, says the housing accessibility co-ordinator has been very pleasant, but sorting out who is responsible for her all of her mother’s housing needs has been a confusing and, at times, opaque process.
“The main issue right now is that going up and down the stairs is difficult, so now that it’s been a little over half a year we are hoping that in the time that we are waiting for a unit that they make this process as easy as possible for her,” she told the Star in late June.
Her wheelchair fits in her kitchen and living room. She can still get outside to tend parts of her wide vegetable and flower garden, where she harvests the baby lettuce she eats every day.
Early in July a railing was installed in the stairwell and a small, metal folding ramp was set up at her door. Toronto community housing paid for both. Doan still uses her walker to get outside because the wheelchair is bulky and hard to move.
Doan came to Canada in the 1980s, part of a wave of refugees known as “boat people” who risked their lives to escape Vietnam by sea. Doan made several tries to leave and was jailed multiple times in harsh conditions, her daughter says.
“It was very demeaning. You don’t get to shower, you don’t get fed properly, you get to shower when it rains,” she says. Eventually she made it to an island off the coast of Malaysia and then spent months in a refugee camp and then on to Kuala Lumpur, before coming to Toronto.
Her daughter says she lied about her age to get work, so her identification says she is 64. In Canada, Doan worked as a seamstress and ran her own textile and flooring business, where she also did installation. She also worked behind the scenes at the CN Tower and supported her children, who she had very late in life, on her own.
“Life has been difficult for her and she had tried really hard. She has had success, she had her own business and it went under. It’s just that life didn’t work out for her and she is stuck,” says her daughter.
Hilda flew her mother to Vancouver in 2016 so she could see more of Canada. It was during the trip that a kidney stone resulted in sepsis. The potentially lethal condition can impact circulation and led to the amputations and weeks of intensive care.
She started a GoFundMe page and used most of the $17,500 raised to get her mother home and plans to buy lighter prosthetic legs.
It was in October, when Doan was in rehabilitation in Toronto, that her children started asking about moving, or making changes to the townhouse.
They inquired about stair-lifts, which can be installed in some units, but housing doesn’t cover the cost, maintenance or ongoing repair of assistive devices.
After conversations between an accessibility co-ordinator and the family’s occupational therapist they applied for an accessible home.
If needed, Doan could also live in a one-level apartment with an automatic door opener and roll-in-shower, they determined.
Doan’s daughter says she asked early on if they could apply to every building to speed up the process and was told there was no way to expedite the move. She was then told the more buildings they picked the better, so they chose a list.
Akers says they have encouraged Doan and her son to expand their choices to the entire housing portfolio from the outset, but Doan’s son told them they want to stick with their list.
While she waits, Doan counts on practice and good health to get her up the stairs.
In June, she lost her balance, tumbled to the landing and cut her head. She was alone and called 911 on her cellphone.
Her upstairs bedroom is where she stores her documents and much of her medical supplies in a tall plastic container near her bed.
Photos of her as a young woman, her children and four of her siblings are placed around the room. One sister lives in the United States. Doan would like to sponsor her niece in Vietnam, to help care for her, but doesn’t know how.
She says she feels strong, but worries what could happen if she got sick.
Her neighbours and friends check in on her, but everybody agrees she needs a new home. She is also looking forward to a quieter place.
It was important to Doan to say that community housing works best when everybody takes care of and respects each other.
Being positive is part of her nature and she refuses to give up.
“No pain. No gain,” she says.