Olga Krywyj has been living outdoors since she arrived in Toronto a year ago. She can’t stay in a women’s shelter or find housing that will accommodate her needs.

She’s one of over 1 million Canadians that suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), Environmental Illness (EI) and Electrical Hyper-Sensitivities (EHS).

People like Krywyj, who suffer from MCS/EI/EHS, react to chemicals at levels way below those that affect the rest of the population.

An invisible disability. Yet one with debilitating consequences.

Tobacco smoke, auto exhaust, perfume, insecticide, new carpet, chorine, and countless other toxins that might make many feel uncomfortable can produce fatigue, dizziness, nausea, congestion, chest pain, changes in heart rhythm, breathing problems, muscle pain or stiffness for someone like Krywyj.

“There are no safe, green emergency shelters and housing in Toronto and the rest of the country,” said Krywyj at a press conference Tuesday morning on the sidewalk on the north side of Queen Street across from the Sheraton Hotel.

“There is no cure for MCS/EI – only avoidance of toxic environments. Gregarious people give up their previous highly social lifestyle to live like hermits in remote locations in order to be safe.”

That usually means living outdoors in do-it-yourself tents, cars, vans, boxes or other forms of inadequate shelter, causing a further deterioration in their health.

And staying as far away as they can from scented products, fresh paint, new carpets, smoke and many cleaning products.

Air fresheners. Hand sanitizers. Most soaps and shampoos. Hair products. And skin lotions.

The City of Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” program has unsuccessfully tried to find a safe, green shelter or housing facility for Krywyj since last October.

That’s because she needs a place that’s scent-free, smoke-free, chemical-free and dust, carpet and mould-free.

The controversy surrounding MCS/EI doesn’t help matters either. 

Many experts and medical organizations say that the relationship between a patient’s symptoms and toxins is weak at best, adding that there is no evidence that an actual disease exists.

Other health-care professionals and patients disagree.

“People with MCS/EI must practice chemical avoidance like people with peanut allergies practice avoidance,” said Krywyj who also suffers from osteoarthritis, degenerative discs and PTSD.

“The ability to control one’s environment is necessary to maintain one’s health.”

But there are little protections for people with MCS/EI in their homes and apartments. Second hand exposures are everywhere. 

“Fumes from BBQ’s, wood smoke, asphalt, dryer vents and vehicle exhaust occur outdoors and easily migrate indoors without adequate measures,” she said.

“Attempting avoidance of trigger substances is near impossible away from home. So the quality of the home environment is critical to one’s quality of life.”

Affordable housing, often located near industrial sites or highways, isn’t well maintained and uses materials that people with MCS/EI need to stay away from.

“The City of Toronto is adding more shelter beds, but this will not accommodate those with MCS/EI unless the beds are in green shelters,” said Krywyj.

“The failure of housing providers to adequately accommodate the unique needs of tenants is a human rights issue that is becoming increasingly significant.”

Yet many hotel have implemented smoke-free, chemical-free and green policies.

“Rooms should be made available to MCS/EI guests in emergency situations until other accommodations can be found,” she said.

“(But) ODSP won’t pay for stays in safe, green hotels, rental rooms in houses or B&B’s.”

Krywyj said there are no experts in the medical housing field, no registries of safe places, no agents who not what to look for.

And few landlords, she said, understand that even a small repair or touch-up with certain materials could result in months of ill health for MCS/EI survivors.

“Many become homeless like myself,” she said. “More than a few commit suicide.”

Her special diet funds are used for special foods needed to repair her immune system and prevent further deterioration from living on the street.

But she admitted that a large portion of those funds is spent on hotel stays every few months to bathe in safety and breathe clean air.

“The cost of DIY shelter supplies such as tarps, blankets, sleeping bags and clothing are not covered by ODSP,” said Krywyj.

“The cost of these items also comes out of my food money.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.