Part Two: I Ran Away to Canada, Only to Hit Rock Bottom

CTV’s ‘Your Morning’ was my only company when I woke up. The sound of regular co-host Anne-Marie Mediwake’s voice was my substitute for an alarm clock and, by that time, JD had already left for work to beat the subway rush hour from Dundas to Lawrence.

I’d jump out of bed, wrap up in JD’s dressing gown and walk down the three flights of stairs to the kitchen to make some cereal and creep back up in time for the ‘Life & Style’ segment. I’d then walk across the hallway – towel, clothes and toiletries in tow – to the bathroom for a shower (hoping no one else was already in there and one particular girl had left the sink plughole free of any long, curly hairs) then back to the bedroom to finish getting dressed in as many layers as I could find that fell out of the full to the brim wardrobe of mine and JD’s clothes.

By this point, the snow had worsened and temperatures plummeted. Torontonians knew how to soldier on as if it was part of everyday life but, as a Brit, I was used to everything being shut down or trains cancelled even if the slightest flutter of snow had hit the ground. While JD and many other young city professionals braved the chill in Canada Goose jackets and sturdy Hanwag hiking boots, my H&M green parka (not at all waterproof) and mud-stained Timberland boots kept me from contracting frostbite or falling arse over tit as I walked through the financial district or on Bay St.

I would sit for hours at a time in Starbucks sipping on hot chocolate and write blog posts, send messages to friends back home and even check up on how things were going at my previous job. Honestly, I found great satisfaction in finding any spelling mistakes or formatting errors on the websites I once edited as I’d heard from a former colleague that they could only get a junior to fill in after my abrupt departure. As for my family, I hadn’t had any communication with my mother since I messaged her to say I had landed safely in Toronto, my father sent one or two messages but mainly communicated through memes instead of picking up the phone, and my sister was fairly preoccupied with getting over her latest break-up and drowning her sorrows in the dives of Hertford with a mutual friend of ours.

In the afternoons, I would face the bitter cold winds by walking past Union Station, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) building and the complex for the CN Tower and Rogers Centre to a quiet café in Chinatown. Here, I plucked up the courage to apply for part-time work in order to try and reach some kind of agreement with JD; I couldn’t keep on with my lifestyle the way it was, and I needed to start working for my own sanity.

Even the number of messages from JD throughout the day had started to dwindle – no longer was he checking in every hour to see if I was still at home or out buying food and, although I started to feel more relaxed about our situation and our growing trust for one another, he was coming home from work later and later in the evenings. I knew from his overall demeanour and reaction to my initial plans in finding a job and a new place to stay that it was best to keep questions at a minimum. He would come home stressed and tired from what he would say was the ‘day from hell’ dealing with back-to-back patients, and that’s how we left it. No prodding and demanding explanations – this was my first serious relationship and I wasn’t going to let everything fall apart just yet.

Woody’s and Pegasus Bar were our regular hangouts on the weekend. The same faces that sat at the bar with their heads down in a newspaper or trying their luck at one of the fruit machines became regular acquaintances, the barmen knew our orders before we even sat down on the stools, and if we went day drinking, we would always get caught up in having to talk to the elderly gay men that stumbled out of the bar where they played all day bingo and were entertained by 19-year-old strippers desperate for some extra cash.

One Saturday, we arrived at Woody’s and bumped into another acquaintance who was propped up at the bar. Daniel was someone we met a few weekends previous at Pegasus. He claimed to be an immigration officer: tall, dark, finely groomed beard and always alone. JD handed over some cash after I’d offered to pick up the drinks while the two exchanged pleasantries and moved toward a table at the back of the bar. I walked to the table with the tray of drinks to what appeared to be a quiet showdown of over-expressive faces and hand gestures. They both stopped when they noticed me slowly approaching. I put down the tray and sat on the only available seat between the two. “Everything alright?”, I said as Daniel immediately changed the subject to what I thought of my time in Canada so far. He asked if I’d made plans to visit any other cities. “I’ve always wanted to go to Vancouver”, I replied only to get a scolding glare from JD that I noticed at the corner of my eye. There was an awkward tension around the table, and I was relieved that once he’d finished his drink, Daniel left us to hit another bar across the street.

“Let’s talk”, JD said once Daniel had disappeared out of sight. I thought this was another moment where his blood would boil and guilt-trip me into staying with him. “How would you like to come and visit my parents with me on Monday?” I was taken aback by his unexpected proposal. Very seldom would he mention his parents or anything about his childhood, and I was the same. “They are going to love you!”, he said. I reluctantly agreed, excited that a guy actually asked me to meet his parents, but bewildered by JD’s seemingly heated exchange with Daniel a few moments ago. “We’ll set off Monday morning and come back on Sunday. It will give you a chance to see the real Canada”.

JD had pre-ordered tickets to set off at 07.30 Monday morning. We jumped on a Go Bus from Union Station and headed to Uxbridge, a small town an-hour-and-a-half north of Toronto where he had grown up. The roads were pretty treacherous and progressively worse as the bus drove further away from the city. The scenery along the way reminded me of all the times I went to visit my nan from my mother’s side as a child; the countryside was near identical to that of Cambridgeshire, and the isolation away from a big town, supermarkets and pubs brought me back to when my sister and I would have to make our ‘own entertainment’ by feeding the ducks, setting up a badminton net or helping our granddad on the compost heap.

His mother, Lisa, came to meet us at a bar in the town centre where the locals were startled to come across an English person as they recognised my accent when I’d ordered a drink. A short, stumpy lady with gold chains and rings waddled her way through the door, embraced JD and extended her hand to introduce herself to me. I was introduced as his ‘new friend’: not partner, not boyfriend, just ‘new friend’.

We arrived at the house to be welcomed by a bichon frise jumping up at the driveway gate and his step-father, Rodrigo (he liked to be called Rigo for short) working out of his garage and flinging garbage into a skip. As soon as we stepped inside through a side door, I was given a pair of slippers to wear: “We never wear shoes inside the house”, Lisa said. I took off my Timberland boots, slid on the pair of white slippers and entered the hallway. “This will be your part of the house, Jack”, Lisa said as we continued down a narrow corridor to the bedroom. She held the bedroom door open for me as I struggled with my luggage, hitting a stone-crafted stand that had a collection of travel minis and two towels on top of it. Lisa cringed at the possibility of potential damage when the stand grazed the wall, but thankfully I escaped any rage as no marks were made.

I messaged JD to come and meet me in my room. I’d lost him along the way when Lisa was showing me where I would be staying; I thought JD would be with me, but I’m sure Lisa and Rigo would not approve of ‘new friends’ staying together in the same room. I unpacked my stuff, checked my phone and still no response. I left the bedroom and found my way to the living room where they were all slumped on the sofa watching Judge Judy. ‘Rigo, this is Jack. Jack, this is my step-father, Rigo’. His handshake was firm, his tone overpowering and remarked that my accent sounded ‘weird’.

On our first night, Lisa suggested we all go to a chinese restaurant a few towns away. I was under the impression that this was to make me feel welcome, however I soon realised they already made plans to meet a business partner there to discuss a second spa opening in Ottawa. Lisa ran a small beauty spa at the side of the house, and due to its ‘popularity’, was excited at the concept of expanding to a second location.

The next morning, Rigo asked for JD and I to join him in picking up some rock salt from a local supplier. Here we bumped into Rigo’s neighbours: two brothers that, once they saw us pull into the parking lot, had noticeably tried to avoid eye contact. Rigo, with his overbearing arrogance and dictatorship was someone to try and avoid at all costs. The brothers didn’t get away too easily and were subjected to a mini presentation of the new spa – picture after picture showing the new layout and surrounding grounds. I found some kind of solace in the brothers’ giving sly eye rolls to each other and breathing a sigh of relief after Rigo ordered us to get on with picking up the heavy bags of rock salt.

We returned to the house and straight away put to work in helping dispose of any junk out of the garage, clearing a mountain of boxes from the bar area and moving new equipment to the spa. I stayed there for an entire week moving heavy boxes and furniture in and out of the spa, cleaning all the equipment and even helping to clean the back rooms, and I never saw one customer walk through those doors. The spa was open, the spa assistant made herself comfortable by putting her feet up on the reception desk sipping cups of tea, but I struggled to understand how this ‘popular’ spa would be able to open a second location.

Not only did I help these strangers get their house in order, I regrettably mentioned that I had a background in writing marketing material for conferences and business networking events. As soon as they heard this, they preyed on me to write all of the content for their new brochures. “We need the content to be quite substantial: a biography, a description of all the treatments, prices, special deals. Can you manage that?” I really wanted to say, “Do it your fucking self”, but it’s not like I could say no – I was in the middle of nowhere, if they asked me to leave I’d have been dragging my suitcase for miles to the nearest bus stop and end up living back at the hostel.

That’s how I spent my evenings, writing page after page for them to not even look at the final product. No time was spent with JD; I tried sending messages for him to come down to my room late at night, but no response. When we did have a quiet moment together for me to confront him, he would always say he was asleep by a really early time, or Rigo needed a hand in the backyard. Alarm bells were ringing: something wasn’t quite right.

Sunday morning. It had probably been the longest week of my life and I knew that I only had to endure one more breakfast around the kitchen table before we set off. I excitedly made sure my stuff was already packed the night before, and as we were about to leave, Rigo wanted to have a quick word with me in private. Maybe he wanted to say thank you for all the hard work, maybe he suspected that I was more than just JD’s ‘new friend’. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to have a one-on-one conversation with him. He lead me down the staircase to hallway. “Here, this is for you – something to remember me by”. A calculator. A fucking calculator. After the suffering of adhering to his directions, pretending to laugh at his god-awful jokes and all the work I put in to help convey the right message for their spa, my efforts only equated to a calculator.

Lisa dropped us off at the station; a warm embrace for JD and a firm handshake for me – no thank you, just a handshake. I clearly remember thinking I never want to see these people ever again. We waited for the bus back to what I call civilisation, the journey back was packed and felt like an eternity to get to the city and my comfort zone. JD was still being cagey, and we only spoke if I needed to move out the way so he could use the toilet. I read a book, he watched some bullshit comedy on his phone, and that’s how we left it. I never did ask him why he never introduced me as more than a ‘new friend’. I didn’t want to push him in divulging any uncomfortable information; I just hoped he would turn back to the affectionate boyfriend he was before we left for Uxbridge.

Over the next few days, his behaviour started to claw back to what it was when we first met. He was even making more of an effort to get home from work at a reasonable time, and I would wake up to a hot cup of coffee at the side of the bed before he left in the mornings. My life went back to how it was before: waiting around in coffee shops, making friends with the gay village regulars and venturing out to either the local Metro store near King Street or to the CF Eaton Centre, where I would browse high-end stores that I dreamt of shopping in ever since I read my first issue of GQ at age 14.

We planned to stay in one Friday evening. Nothing special: movies, pizza, watch some Netflix and then an early wakeup call as he promised to take me to the the Hockey Hall of Fame. I ordered the food and flicked through Netflix’s ‘Recently Added’ while JD was in the shower. His phone was left under a pair of jeans at the end of the bed and I could feel a vibration for a few seconds, then another as I was about to select a film to watch. I flipped the jeans on the floor with my foot and pressed the menu button. It’s hard to explain the compulsion I felt to press this button. I never thought I would be one of those people that would snoop through a partner’s phone; I always looked down at that kind of behaviour. But something at the forefront of my mind was telling me that I needed to take a look. ‘D’ must have been enamoured with me, “So what’s the plan with Jack?” Another one a few moments later, “Have you spoken to him yet?” I look back with regret and think I should have just left there and then, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I kept the phone in my lap and waited until he entered the bedroom. “D must be very concerned that you haven’t told me something”. I held the phone still with my right hand as I watched him focus directly on its screen. He then proceeded to hide his face with a nervous embarrassment, his cheeks and temples flushed with a shade of pink and he started to ferociously dry his hair with the towel.

“You need to trust me…”

San Francisco: a Cultural Hub Housing a Crippling Homeless Epidemic

Famed for its iconic landmarks from Alcatraz Island to the Golden Gate Bridge, its long-established LGBT and Asian American communities and the city’s cable cars dominating the steep, rolling hills, I was excited to explore the diverse and cosmopolitan vibes of San Francisco. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the staggering homeless population that became my plus one along the way of my solo trip.

I arrived at my hotel on Bush Street, a close walk to downtown’s Union Square, suffering with a serious bout of sleep deprivation and ended up collapsing on my bed scrapping any plans of finding a Franciscan fish restaurant and heading out to the lively bars crammed with locals and tourists celebrating the start of Mother’s Day weekend.

I slept right through until the next morning, and I was ready to start exploring the city. The historic architecture and picture perfect ‘Queen Anne’ houses were visible from my hotel room window. Quaint neighbourhoods and the downtown skyscrapers screamed innovation, ambition and drive; comprising the story of America’s most expensive city.

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As I began my quest to find a traditional American pancake breakfast, a smell so powerful was overriding the fresh air I was expecting from my first full day bright, sunny morning in California. Urine, flattened cardboard boxes and shit-stained sleeping bags decorated shop doorways and beggars occupied most of the street corners. I did notice some sleeping bags and even groups of tents during the taxi ride from the airport, but my ignorance put that down to my driver cutting through the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ to beat the infamous San Francisco traffic.

Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Tiffany & Co. are just some of the high-end stores that surround Union Square; beggars with small children or dogs desperate for tourists to take pity and spare some change replace store greeters. The short walk to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) was a replica of my earlier breakfast journey, and the City Bus tour I took in the afternoon featured homeless people swigging from bottles, intimidating passers by and, just a stone’s throw away from City Hall, a man no older than 30 strapping a blue band around his right arm and injecting, what appeared to be, heroin.

To say my mind was blown is an understatement. I was used to seeing people sleeping rough on Oxford Street and the occasional one or two scrounging for spare change or a cigarette at Tottenham Hale station, but to travel across a majority of San Francisco and find this recurring theme in almost every district was a disturbing revelation.

Later on in my trip, I was invited to dinner by a guy I met at Mayes Oyster House along with his friends at a pizzeria in the Castro district. Most of evening was taken up by them asking questions on London life and, before I could even steer the conversation to my thoughts of San Francisco so far, one of the friends commented on the number of homeless people that were roaming the streets outside the restaurant. I initially hesitated to comment as I didn’t want to spoil the atmosphere of the evening. But when I mentioned how surprised I was to see so many people old and young sleeping rough, I was given a summarised rundown on the San Francisco homeless community.

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Despite the city spending
$275 million on homelessness and supportive housing in the 2016-2017 fiscal year (up from $241 million the year before) the most recent 78-page ‘Homeless Census’ revealed things are as bad as they’ve ever been. The total homeless population was calculated at 7,499: 41% claim to have a drug or alcohol addiction; 39% are dealing with mental health issues; and 11% are living with HIV or AIDS. As for the distribution of San Francisco’s homeless population, 3,680 people currently live on the streets of District Sixincluding a majority of SoMa and the Tenderloin which grapples with the highest homeless population.

The San Francisco Travel Association’s (STFA) CEO, Joe D’Alessandro, has placed partial responsibility at the city’s homeless crisis for narrowly missing their 2017 prediction of 25.6 million tourists visiting the city; its annual report found 25.5 million visited last year and, aside from a possible downfall in America’s reputation since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, D’Alessandro told CBS San Francisco earlier this year: “They [Tourists] wonder why does one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest states have streets that look like this? Why are there people living on the streets in these conditions? And it’s not acceptable honestly. And we’re failing as a society for not addressing this.”

Extortionate rent prices are also a main contributor to the homeless crisis. The cost of housing has greatly exceeded the amount of income that people earn working minimum-wage or acquire from disability support, pensions or other benefit plans. To put this into perspective, the average one-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area is much more expensive than it is in the New York City metro area, and apartments in San Francisco are listed at a higher price than those in Manhattan. According to Expatistan, the average monthly cost for a 900 Sq/Ft apartment in a ‘normal’ area in San Francisco will set you back $3,576; whereas the same size apartment in New York City is listed at $2,805 (except from transport, costs for food, clothing, personal care and entertainment are also considerably higher than in NYC).

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Although study after study has concluded with troubling statistics, the city announced last month it will spend $305 million in the next fiscal year out of its approximate $10 billion annual budget in its long-lasting attempt at combatting the growing issue. The additional amount will help to finance Homeward Bound an initiative that reunites individuals with friends and family members (serving nearly 900 people last year) in addition to expanding shelter capacity and providing 200 housing units for former homeless residents in affordable housing buildings, as well as a hotel in the SoMa district.

Mayor Mark Farrell said: “San Francisco’s homeless problem has become a crisis, and as Mayor I have been committed to tackle the issue head on. These investments focus on programs and policies that have been proven to work, and will make a difference on the streets of San Francisco. Our residents deserve it.”

The increased budget has been welcomed by Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), stating the proposal will add “significant resources” to San Francisco’s Homelessness Response System: “To be successful in our efforts to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time we have to invest in proven programs that help prevent and end homelessness. The proposed budget will help us reduce the number of people who are becoming homeless and in need of emergency services while also investing in proven solutions like permanent supportive housing and navigation centers. This budget reflects the priorities outlined in HSH’s strategic framework and moves us closer to our goal of reducing homelessness in San Francisco.”

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It seems a lot of hope is riding on this proposal. From my brief experience walking the city’s streets and listening to the anguish of locals, I have to say San Francisco has a vigorous journey ahead in order to make some positive change. Human feces, dirty needles, the tent cities that continue to pop up around the city, and homeless people with mental and alcohol or drug-related problems ranting at passersby are scaring the tourists away. But, as former mayor Ed Lee said, “there is no silver bullet” solution.

Hotelopia: “Employees Are No Longer Looking for Just a Salary – They Want a Unique Package”

Hotelopia isn’t just about accommodation – they provide a full range of travel services from transfers, sightseeing tours, activities and car hire to customers and workplaces in more than 185 countries worldwide. Here, we talk with Jon French, head of B2B2C Solutions, to discuss the company’s unique position in the employee benefits market, why employers need to think outside the box with their packages, and the company’s plans for further expansion.

1. Evidently, Hotelopia is quite a unique concept. What would you say makes you stand out from your competitors?

I would say the main factor that makes us stand out is, rather than give cashback where you pay full price and store credit for future purchases, we believe it is better to offer that discount upfront from the first booking. For the employer partners we work with, we are able to provide significant discounts from our normal public price.

Of course, we don´t sell the kitchen sink; therefore, we like to focus on fewer key hotels to provide better discounts to pass on to our customers. It’s only natural from being in business for 15 years that we’ve managed to developed great relationships with our hotels as well as due to our beneficial position forming part of Hotelbeds Group, the business-to-business provider of services to the travel industry globally.

2. Should more UK organisations provide this benefit, or something similar, to their employees?

Definitely! Not only does it create value, it’s also a powerful internal marketing tool to motivate your employees by offering unique benefits in travel shopping. Travel is considered a non-negotiable ‘right’ by many people, and this has proved to be a no-risk benefit at no cost to the employer other than advertising it. 

These days, people look for more than just cash-remuneration – this employee benefit is a way to stand out from other employers. Employees are no longer looking for just a salary – they want a unique package.

3. Could you talk a bit more in-depth about the White Label offering?

Hotelopia White Label is designed to generate value for your employees, as well as customers, by offering either corporate or loyalty discounts. A customised web page is created with a company’s logo and corporate information, and if they wish, they can choose between offering a discount only to their staff members or a mixture of discount and commission.

Fortunately, we don´t charge for the White Label service – creation is completely free, quick and easy process and an assigned, dedicated key account manager will be on hand to give support to each client every step of the way. In terms of commercial models, we can offer: a discount directly to employees; a mixture of a discount of employees; and also commission to the employer so it can be developed as a revenue stream to the company.

4. Why did Hotelopia decide to expand and target the employee benefits industry?

There is a huge potential in the corporate benefits field, since the audience is substantial, varied and worldwide. The potential growth is very interesting for us to explore as we are truly global, and the market is turning more and more competitive with customers becoming experts in their search for the very best deals. To succeed, it’s fundamental to be able to offer the best price, and Hotelopia can offer very competitive discounts across our entire portfolio. 

Also, we have looked at the cost of acquiring new customers, and have found this to be a cost-effective business model and a win-win situation for all involved: the business, our partners, and the customer. 

5. How much traction is Hotelopia receiving from UK businesses as an employee benefit?

The UK is one of our key markets. We cooperate with some of the largest companies offering employee benefits, including market-leading airlines, high street and food retailers such as John Lewis. But we feel that there is still a lot of room left for us to grow and approach other sectors.

6. What would your advice be to employers who would like to introduce an employee benefit such as Hotelopia, but are intimidated by the costs involved?

The good thing is that we do not charge any implementation, maintenance or development costs. Once both parties agree to go ahead, it is free for the employer. It is a quick and simple process and you will be supported by your key account manager throughout the process.

The only thing we do ask from companies is to have us as a link via their websites, or even a newsletter they send out, which encourages staff members to take full advantage of the benefits we can offer to them. Obviously, those companies making an effort in communication of the White Label are experiencing the best results.

To get the word out there, it is crucial to establish a communication strategy for employees to be aware of the benefits, and we can fully support this by supplying marketing material, prize draws and exclusive offers. 

7. What challenges do you face in persuading new and potential clients to go ahead with Hotelopia as an incentive, and how do you combat these challenges?

The biggest challenge we face is acquiring enough internal traction within the companies and getting clients focused on what they can achieve by implementing Hotelopia.

Our key success stories are normally with companies that have a specific focus on benefits and communicate it accordingly; we can work with our partners to showcase how it all works, as well as provide a revenue stream for them depending on the commercial offer involved.

Recent industry discussion has shown that it’s not just about money for employees – engagement is paramount for staff retention. Especially when budgets are tight, if you can give employees perks, then that in itself can make a huge difference.

8. Are there any new developments that Hotelopia as a company is working on at the moment?

Yes, we are constantly looking at ways we can improve our customer experience, and adding new and exciting product to sell to our customers. We get great feedback from our partners and customers for ways to improve, and we always take that on board!

Hotelopia has seen quite a bit of traction in the employee benefits industry within the last three to four years, and actively targeting the sector within the last year or two. We’re expecting more and more people to offer this kind of benefit as, clearly, there’s a high demand for it.