Print this pagePrint this page

To Subscribe to Cathy's Monthly Newsletter CLICK HERE
Newsletter Archives

#37 - September 2007 Newsletter

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 18 years. I have received the Atkinson Economic Justice Award which permits me to pursue my passions for nursing and working on homelessness and housing issues. In this newsletter I hope to report on my activities, create a link to a broader group of individuals who care about these social issues and encourage critical debate.


Further information about subscribing to the newsletter is found below. I want to hear from you - about the newsletter, about things that are happening in the homelessness sector (what a sad term!), and about good things which will provide inspiration for all of us.


1. Rachel and Her Children

2. Home Safe – a documentary film project with families and children

3. The Word: Collaborate. (Collaborative, Collaborator, Collaboration, Collaborating, Collaboratively)


1.  Rachel and Her Children


Homeless families and children: “Concealment is apparently important”


In 1988 a non-fiction book that was known simply as ‘Rachel and Her Children’ became a best seller in the United States.  The book made a huge impact, exposing the issue of the hidden homeless, the families and children, to the general public. 


Its author Jonathan Kozol wrote:  New York does more than any other city I have visited to serve the homeless.  But what it does is almost imperceptible in context of the need.”  Kozol chronicled the damage with both stats and images that jump to life from the page.


The shocking stats: Despite the $150 million of 1987 spending (in New York City) assigned to homeless families with children, the growth in numbers far outpaced the allocations.   In 1978, 900 families were given shelter on any given night; 2,900 by 1984, 4,000 by 1985, 5,000 by spring 1987.  An average of 2.3 children per family – many two-parent families.  The pattern, he points out, suggested that over 20,000 family members would be homeless in New York by 1988.


Some images:  Kozol takes his reader to the Martinique Hotel where homeless families stay for up to 16 months:

“(the Martinique is) an enormous building that should not be easy to disguise; but the sign has no illumination and it’s hard to see the name of the hotel unless one studies it from across the street….it resembles less a dwelling place than a dilapidated movie house or a bus station.  One would not imagine from the sidewalk that this building might be home to 1,800 human beings.  Concealment is apparently important.” (emphasis mine)


The Washington Monthly wrote:

“The visual images evoked by Kozol include the young boy who slept in a Goodwill box from age 9 to 14 until he was no longer small enough to fit through the box's deposit slot; the man, woman, and child asleep in a single telephone booth in New York City; a little girl reporting how "Mr. Rat came in my baby sister's crib and bit her;" and Rachel herself, a homeless mother in New York, who pleads with Kozol: "Can you get the government to know that we exist?"


This summer I reread Kozol’s book and was reminded that at the time of its publication I was stunned by what I read.  I also remember never imagining a Canada that would include such stats or images.


In the early ‘80s my first nursing job that had direct contact with homeless families was in a Toronto shelter for women and children fleeing abuse, so I learned early on that for obvious reasons women and children fleeing violence and abuse require concealment when accessing emergency shelters.  Later, in 1985 I worked as the nurse in a city-run shelter for homeless families, and I recall when this sector of the homeless population grew so large that the City of Toronto decided to relocate its family shelter to Scarborough and contract with motels for the human overflow.  For many of us, the relocation of homeless families to Scarborough was cause for concern.  Where were the social services and infrastructure support like transit that would allow families with children to survive, stay connected, thrive?  It felt like they were being swept under the rug.  Farmed out to ‘Scarberia’.  Hidden from view.  Concealed.  As it turns out the supports weren’t there but efforts to fill the gaps were made by a wonderful group of volunteers led by spirited ex-nurse Margaret Hefferon, who founded the Caring Alliance.


Today, the thousands of families in Canada facing homelessness for primarily economic reasons remain concealed.  They include hundreds of families in motel-hostels on Kingston Road in Scarborough or in motels outside of towns like Sarnia, families forced to double up with relatives and friends, families moving nightly in Calgary’s Inn from the Cold faith program, families squeezed into a spare room in all male dormitory style shelters, and even some families relying on campgrounds in rural settings – weather permitting.


It’s no wonder, given these sub-human living conditions that the magnitude of the problem remains invisible, and politicians and bureaucrats have not yet been forced to come up with the obvious solutions – funding for designated family shelters and truly affordable, social housing.


As Canadian municipalities, politicians and researchers turn to the United States for policy solutions to Canadian social problems such as homelessness they should consult the New York Coalition for the Homeless which provides a wake-up call on America’s dismal record dealing with homeless families:


New York City is currently in the midst of an historic crisis of family homelessness.  In February of this year, according to data from the New York City Department of Homeless Services, the average number of homeless families sleeping each night in the municipal shelter system reached nearly 9,300 families, an all-time record.  And the record level of family homelessness in New York City has persisted throughout the course of this year.  Each night of 2007, more than 9,000 New York City families with more than 14,000 children have bedded down in shelters or welfare hotels.”


Today, Rachel and her children might well be stuck in emergency shelter for years, even if they sought asylum in Canada.  Surely, the cancellation of our national housing program is the primary reason?


Failure to thrive?


The term ‘failure to thrive’ is a term we’re familiar with to describe the pathology in infants and young children who might have suffered intentional or unintentional neglect or who might have an underlying medical issue resulting in stunted cognitive development, delayed physical development, anxiety, poor appetite, etc.  Maybe ‘failure to thrive’ should be applied as a descriptor to communities and their political leaders who despite the evidence and obvious solutions refuse to meet the most basic human right – the right to housing and adequate shelter for their people.


(Rachel and Her Children. Homeless Families in America by Jonathan Kozol Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1988


2.  Home Safe – a documentary film/community development project with families and children


‘Rachel and Her Children’ is my way of introducing you to a project I am working on with Canadian filmmaker Laura Sky.  I was reading it this summer as background research for Home Safe (working title), a documentary film that Laura and I will be making about homeless families with children in Canada.


Despite episodic work with homeless families in shelters, for most of my street nursing years, I have primarily worked with single homeless adults.  Following a number of tumultuous years of political struggles over Tent City, shelter conditions, homeless deaths, tuberculosis outbreaks etc., journalist (now a Toronto City Councillor) Adam Vaughan confronted me with this matter of fact statement:


“Cathy, they (the politicians/government) won’t do anything until a child dies.” 


Although I appreciated Adam’s bluntness, I was very upset by his statement, perhaps because I realized it had more than a grain of truth.  However, there had already been a child’s death (and inquest), maybe even several deaths of children.  The impact Adam’s statement had on me was reminiscent of the impact the images of the Canadian ice storm had on me which prompted me to realize homelessness was a man-made disaster.  I call that moment a ‘nursing epiphany’ and this felt the same.


At the same time, friend and filmmaker Laura Sky was developing considerable expertise working with children in a film called Kids Care.  Laura and I had always dreamed of a joint project.  Many of you may be familiar with some of Laura’s films that have dealt with health care and social issues (To Hurt and To Heal, The Right to Care, Working Like Crazy, Crisis Call).  I am a board member of Sky Works, Laura’s non-profit documentary film organization and knew and trusted the manner in which her films were used as community development tools (  In addition, my very positive experience with the films Street Nurse (Shelley Saywell, 2002) and Shelter From the Storm (Michael Connolly 2001) taught me that the right filmmaker can create a film that can be used to build and support movements for social change.


At Sky Works we decided to prioritize working on this issue. Our goal is to create a documentary film that will function as an anti-poverty, anti-discrimination tool that can be used in board rooms, at conferences, community events and policy meetings.  


There are numerous reasons for a project such as this and as Laura always says “there are lots of ways to do it wrong – we will do it the right way”. 


Childhood poverty and homelessness mirror the economic disenfranchisement of underemployed families, and those who are on social assistance or precariously employed.  Housing has never been a central feature of children’s policy initiatives in our country, nor have the interests of children been well-reflected in Canadian housing policy. 


Even while attention to poverty, homelessness and the acute shortage of affordable housing across the country has grown more evident, family homelessness has become more invisible.  This invisibility is related to a number of factors.  Homeless families face stigma and shame which make them less likely to disclose their status.  In addition, communities become systematically desensitized to the needs of homeless individuals and families, in part because homeless families are commonly relegated to suburbs, or out-of-town motel shelters - out of sight, out of mind - concealed.


For the last 15 months I have been assisting in the research and fundraising for this film, twinning the work with other projects I am involved in.  We are very close to starting the actual filming process.  Laura is the filmmaker and I am the Executive Producer.


Here is a brief outline of the project to date.


The project will focus on children under the age of 14 in four different communities, who, along with their families, have been forced into shelters/motels, hostels or transition houses or who are ‘couch-surfing’ with family or friends – all as a consequence of poverty and/or family crisis. 


Home Safe is a substantial project - in scope and in purpose.  In order to realize our goals, we will build the project in four distinct and related chapters.  Each chapter will be researched, filmed and completed in a different geographic location, and will look at different issues related to homelessness and poverty.  We will work closely with individuals, organizations and networks in the four diverse locations.  These include:


1. Toronto - working with Women’s Habitat in Toronto, the project will highlight the needs of women and children escaping from violent relationships. A number of the families we will work with are also vulnerable as immigrants and refugees.

2. Calgary - working with a coalition of housing and anti-poverty groups in Calgary, this chapter will focus on the needs of children who live with employed parent(s) but who are homeless.  There is a dramatic contrast between the promise of a booming economy in Calgary and the vulnerability of those who have sought an economic place in that environment.  Community leaders as well as frontline advocates are struggling to find solutions to the growing homelessness crisis in their city.

3.  Sault Ste. Marie - with the participation of a coalition of anti-poverty and housing groups, this chapter will focus on issues in the north, with particular reference to the needs of Aboriginal children and families.  There is a strong coalition of anti-poverty groups and social service agencies in this community, with leadership provided by the Urban Aboriginal Homelessness Program and the Soup Kitchen Community Centre.

4. Hamilton – we are working with community leaders, anti-poverty groups and community health organizations who are committed to working together to “Tackling poverty in Hamilton”.  This is a city in the throws of huge economic change causing increased risk of poverty and homelessness. 


Unique to this film is the process for community development which began at the beginning of the research.  Laura and I have now met with hundreds of people across the country including homeless families and children who have given us invaluable insight.  The project will ensure that the voices of homeless families, which have been excluded from public policy and practice in communities, will be heard across Canada.


The enthusiasm for the project is startling and I’ll keep you posted as the work progresses.




3.  The Word: Collaborate. (Collaborative, Collaborator, Collaboration, Collaborating, Collaboratively)


I remember when Claudette Bradshaw, former Minister Responsible for Homelessness toured the country and urged those of us in the provision of homeless services to 'coordinate' better.   This was quite amusing to us, as we were coordinating our services quite extensively both locally and nationally.   In fact, the only stakeholders that weren't participating in this coordinated effort were the federal and provincial governments.


Some of you may be familiar with Stephen Colbert's 'The Word'. I couldn't help but think of his comedy sketch when I read a recent report prepared for the City of Toronto Shelter Support and Housing Department.   The words collaborative, collaborator, collaboration, collaborating or collaboratively appeared a total of 178 times in its 30 some pages.


While we appreciate the advice, the truth is that collaboration alone will not end homelessness.  We need to see real commitment from all levels of Government.  Commitment in the form of money and housing, not more reports.






Thanks to Dave Meslin for editing, design and layout.



Subscribe to this newsletter

I plan to publish this newsletter regularly. If you receive this newsletter directly, then your address is already on our mailing list; otherwise, to subscribe or unsubscribe, send a note to . For more information on my work including this and other editions of my newsletter please visit my web page at

There is no charge for this newsletter. Please forward it to your friends and others who you think may be interested in it. I value your feedback and ideas. Please share them with me at or c/o the Sherbourne Health Centre,
333 Sherbourne Street, Toronto, Ontario M5A 2S5.