Once a homeless drug addict, a mayor takes charge of the housing and drug crisis

There are politicians – almost all of them – who try to make their professional accounts and past lives shine as best they can. Then there’s Dan Carter.

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

Homeless and addicted to drugs from adolescence until age 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 skills, no education, no nothing.

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

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

“It’s going to be expensive, it’s going to be labor intensive, but that’s what it’s going to take,” Carter, 63, said during a walk through City Hall. He pointed to a nearby park where several homeless people gather in the cold: “Or,” he said, “we can just keep doing this.”

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

Growing up, Mr Carter found it difficult to connect with his strict adoptive father, their only bond being a current affairs radio programme. After each show, he and his father discussed politics.

His dyslexia, unrecognized during his school years, made learning nearly impossible. But one silver lining was his relationship with his three older brothers, particularly Michael, a Toronto police officer whose death at age 28 in a motorcycle accident deeply shook the 13-year-old Mr. Carter.

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

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

Alcohol, he said, also helped him forget that he had been sexually assaulted at age 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 confidant. “The only thing I can do is talk and the only thing I can do is sell,” he said. With those skills, new clothes and lying about his age, he started a series of retail jobs at 14.

But alcohol and drugs consumed his earnings. He went from job to job until he became unemployed. Apartments gave way to rooms, rooms to friends’ couches, and finally to the streets of Toronto.

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

When he arrived, Mr Carter said: “He tapped me on the head and said: ‘You have two choices. Either you get sober or you die today.’”

With local addiction treatment programs full, Maureen took her brother to Los Angeles for treatment. That experience, she said, gave him important insight into addiction treatment: It takes time. Her treatment lasted a year.

It’s not a message welcomed by administrators of Ontario’s perpetually strained public health system, he acknowledged.

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

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

The idea remained.

Despite having no experience, he convinced a local cable TV channel to let him host a talk show. He later created a production company, used his father’s inheritance to purchase a building to set up a small studio, and convinced a television station to broadcast the show. Initially Mr. Carter’s pay was just a cut of advertising revenue.

“The Dan Carter Show” made him a local celebrity and his guests on the show gave him the education he had been missing.

His talk show stardom 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 continued to work on his lack of literacy skills; both writing and reading remain a struggle. He dedicates more time to managing information documents in the city hall.

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

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

Carter’s political agenda went beyond homelessness and addiction. Days before he was sworn in as mayor, General Motors told him that he was shutting down auto production in the city after more than a century.

“I have never publicly criticized General Motors,” Mr. Carter said. “Instead, we worked and worked to come up with 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.

Even when he was mayor, Carter said, he found there was little that could be done about addiction and mental health.

“My frustration is that I’m the mayor of a city,” he said. “But not only do I have to convince 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 mentality.”

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

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

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

Mr. Carter was also able to get financing for 27 small housing units, but not the 24-hour staff he thought the facility needed. A murder soon followed.

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

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

There were setbacks in his personal life too. Her sister Maureen died by suicide in 2000. In her resentment, Mr. Carter said, she abandoned her second marriage (she has since remarried). But neither episode, he said, caused him to return to his employ.

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

“People say, ‘Oh, the mayor hasn’t done enough for the homeless, he hasn’t done this, he hasn’t done that,’” 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 suffering on our streets.”