Once a Homeless Addict, a Mayor Takes On Housing and Drug Crises

There are politicians — almost all of them — who try to put the best possible shine on their professional résumés and past lives. Then there is Dan Carter.

“For 17 years, I was an absolutely horrible individual,” said Mr. Carter, the mayor of Oshawa, Ontario. “Horrible individual. I lied, cheated, stole.”

Homeless and addicted to drugs from his teenage years until he was 31, and essentially illiterate because of severe dyslexia, he was fired from more jobs than he could remember, Mr. Carter said, adding, “I really had no skills, no abilities, no education, no nothing.”

But it was perhaps this atypical background that appealed to voters in Oshawa, a city of 175,000 on Lake Ontario’s shoreline, who first elected him mayor in 2018. Or at least his story positioned him as someone who could bring his personal experience to bear on the city’s most pressing problems.

Written with colored markers on a whiteboard in the meeting room next to Mr. Carter’s office in city hall are the issues facing Oshawa: the number of overdoses (398 last year); the number of homeless people (currently about 350); the costs to the city for the overdoses (over half a million Canadian dollars, or about $365,000, last year). Next to this list is a flow chart of his plans to change things.

Overdose and homelessness statistics written on a whiteboard in Mr. Carter’s office.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times
Dr. Martin Luther King memorabilia in Mr. Carter’s office.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

“It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be labor intensive, but that’s what it’s going to take,” said Mr. Carter, 63, during a stroll around city hall. He gestured toward a nearby park where several homeless people congregate in the cold: “Or,” he said, “we can just keep doing this.”

Born in New Brunswick, Mr. Carter was adopted by a family in Agincourt, Ontario, a farming village that rapidly became a suburb — part of Toronto’s Scarborough neighborhood.

Growing up, Mr. Carter had trouble connecting with his stern adoptive father, their one bond a current affairs radio program. After each show, he and his father debated politics.

His dyslexia, unrecognized in his school years, made learning nearly impossible. But a bright spot was his relationship with his three older siblings, especially Michael, a Toronto police officer, whose death, at 28, in a motorcycle accident, deeply shook the 13-year-old Mr. Carter.

Mr. Carter went from homelessness to hosting a talk show to mayor of Oshawa.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

At his brother’s wake, Mr. Carter’s friends introduced him to alcohol, setting off a downward spiral.

“All I knew was alcohol gave me the things that I was desperate for,” Mr. Carter said. “When I drank, I was confident. When I drank. I thought I was funny. When I drank, I was charismatic. When I drank, I didn’t have to think about the failure that I was.”

Alcohol, he said, also helped him forget about having been sexually assaulted at 7 by a man at a gas station on his newspaper delivery route; he still finds the smell of gas and oil unbearable, he said.

Self-deprecating to a remarkable degree, in one area Mr. Carter has always been confident. “The one thing I can do is talk and the one thing I can do is sell,” he said. With those skills, new clothes and lying about his age, he begana series of retail jobs at 14.

But alcohol and drugs consumed his earnings. He bounced from job to job until he became unemployable. Apartments yielded to rooms, rooms to friends’ sofas and, eventually, the streets of Toronto.

Friendless and estranged from family, when he was 31, out of desperation, he called his sister Maureen Vetensky. A successful businesswoman in Toronto, she told him to come to her house.

When he arrived, Mr. Carter said, “She smacked me across the side of the head and she said: ‘You got two choices. You either sober up or you’re going to die today.’”

With local addiction treatment programs full, Maureen flew her brother to Los Angeles for treatment. That experience, he said, gave him a major insight into treating addiction: It takes time. His treatment lasted a year.

A man sleeping on the sidewalk in Oshawa. The city has about 350 homeless people.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

It is not a message welcomed by administrators in Ontario’s perennially-strained public health care system, he acknowledged.

“But if I had been in a treatment program for 21 or 28 days, I can tell you that I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he said.

On his return, Mr. Carter worked at an off-track betting club, where an actor suggested his voice would work well on television.

The idea stuck.

Despite having zero experience, he convinced a local cable TV channel to allow him to host a talk show. He later created a production company, used an inheritance from his father to buy a building to create a small studio and persuaded a broadcaster to carry the show. Mr. Carter’s pay was initially just a cut of ad revenues.

“The Dan Carter Show” made him a local celebrity, and his guests on the show provided him with the education he had missed.

Mr. Carter’s office features a lending library with books about leadership. His dyslexia was unrecognized and untreated in his school years, and reading remains a challenge.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

His talk-show celebrity, and the political connections he developed, led to his first successful mayoral campaign in 2018, winning with about two-thirds of the vote. He was re-elected in 2022 by a similar margin.

As mayor, he has continued to work on his lack of literacy skills; both writing and reading remain a struggle. He sets aside extra time to deal with briefing papers at city hall.

Dan Walters, who met him about 20 years ago through community outreach work for Oshawa-based Ontario Tech University, said even before he entered politics, Mr. Carter was bringing people together and getting projects going.

“He’s a good showman,” Mr. Walters said. “But beyond that, there’s a certain layer of authenticity that people gravitate to, and he’s just absolutely bright. I think people see him as a leader because he is.”

Mr. Carter’s policy agenda has gone beyond homelessness and addiction. Days before he was first sworn in as mayor, General Motors told him it was about to shut down car production in the city, after more than a century.

“I never publicly criticized General Motors,” Mr. Carter said. “Instead, we worked and worked to find ideas to bring them back.” The plant reopened in 2021 and now employs just over 3,400 people, up from 2,500 when it closed.

The General Motors plant in Oshawa. Days before Mr. Carter was first sworn in as mayor, G.M. told him it was about to shut down car production in the city. Today, the factory employs 3,400 people.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times

Even as mayor, Mr. Carter said, he has found there’s only so much he can do about addiction and mental health.

“My frustration is I’m a local mayor of a city,” he said. “But not only do I have to get eight of my colleagues from all the other municipalities to agree with me, but I also have to work against a system that absolutely has its own mind-set.”

What he can do, is try to humanize for his constituents the homeless and people with mental health problems.

“It’s like they’re untouchables,” he said.

An early attempt to help the city’s homeless by placing plastic, portable toilets downtown, failed when some were set on fire and others used for drug injections or prostitution. He wound up funding new, permanent public toilets at a nearby shelter.

Mr. Carter was also able to secure financing for 27 small housing units, but not for the round-the-clock staffing he thought the facility required. A murder soon followed.

“I’m absolutely sickened about it because all I want to do is see the program succeed,” he said. “But I’m not going to give up on it.”

He has been criticized for hiring private security guards in 2020 to work Oshawa’s downtown streets. Mr. Carter said they are there to assist homeless people, but critics have called it harassment. (The guards are now being replaced by social workers.)

There have been setbacks in his personal life, as well. His sister Maureen died by suicide in 2000. In his grief, Mr. Carter said, he walked out of his second marriage (he has since remarried). But neither episode, he said, tempted him to return to his addictions.

Mr. Carter said he won’t seek a third term, but he vowed not to give up on the issue that brought him to politics.

“People say: ‘Oh, the mayor hasn’t done enough on the homeless, he hasn’t done this, he hasn’t done that,’” Mr. Carter said. “What I can tell you is that every day when I show up to work, the No. 1 thing I think about is those people that are suffering out on our streets.”

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