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#40 - December 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.


Cathy’s (not Oprah’s) ‘Favourite things’

This time last year, my newsletter was called Giving and Taking: ‘tis the Season.  I wrote about giving, including acts of philanthropy, the little girl Hannah Taylor who raised $1 million dollars to help homeless people, people who give with kindness and I asked some prominent Canadians whether they give to panhandlers.  I also wrote about taking, in particular the taking of federal funding from valuable social programs.

I urge you to visit Giving and Taking: ‘tis the Season, if only to see the picture of Scrooge who remains a Scrooge!

I recently read a Globe and Mail article by Judith Timson describing the marketing phenomenon of Oprah Winfrey, which makes women in her audience scream with joy and makes Timson squirm in discomfort.  Only hours later I found myself squirming as I was flipping channels and got caught up in the 'O' spectacle.
It was Oprah’s 'Favourite Things for 2007' show, held in Macon, Georgia where, according to the website, on any given day 45% of the residents of the town are tuned in to the show.  I suspected there were other important stats to know about Macon, Georgia.  According to the US Census Bureau's most recent stats, 33% of female householder families in Macon, Georgia live below the poverty line and 25% of all households in Macon receive means tested public assistance. 

I watched the Oprah show with curiosity, noting the extreme levels of pomp and circumstance in the first 5 minutes of the show.  Carpets were rolled out, huge wrapped presents were carted in, then Oprah arrived on stage, all the while the mostly female audience was universally screaming and crying - really, crying with joy.  It only got worse.
Oprah crossed the line with this show, showering each audience participant with $20,000 worth of extravagant gifts including: a fridge that also functions as an entertainment centre with an LCD and DVD hook-up, kitchen appliances and high-end kitchen ware, a set of $42 soaps, $55 worth of body butter and perhaps the most necessary thing for the American woman who wants to get ahead and off welfare - 'O's Guide to Life.  As each present was paraded through the audience by an army of Fed-Ex and other employees, the audience continued screaming and crying.  It's very possible that some of the audience winners were Macon householders living below the poverty line - that would be great.  But I suspect the biggest winner at the end of the day will be the billionaire herself and the 'high-end' companies that manufacture items like the $350 blender.

As I approach my 20th year as a Street Nurse and witness worsening homelessness and poverty, I’m reminded of the wise words of Charles Pascal, Executive Director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.  When I first met Charles a number of years ago, he told me that he thought I didn’t ask often enough for what I needed.  He counselled me to learn not to be modest when it came to asking for help.  My New Year’s resolution therefore (which I’m starting today) is to ask for what I need.  I thought if Oprah can flaunt her ‘Favourite Things’, so can I.  My 3 Favourite Things deal with the ‘upstream’, i.e. they provide solutions for homelessness or what I now call ‘finding the cure’.  If you can give a donation this year, I am asking you to consider giving to one of my 3 Favourite Things.  

Favourite Thing # 1: Building housing with St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society

I often say that I am a nurse, not a carpenter.  When I received the Atkinson Charitable Foundation Economic Justice Award, I vowed I would work towards ensuring that our federal government returns to a fully-funded national housing program. I haven’t given up on that. 

In the interim, I wanted to learn how to build affordable, social housing.  I joined the Board of Directors of St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society, which has an excellent track record of building housing, particularly impressive given the funding void that still exists.  St. Clare’s has completed three housing projects over the last ten years.  In 2001 St. Clare’s converted 25 Leonard Avenue in Toronto into 51 units of affordable housing – the first affordable housing built in Toronto since 1995.  I am very happy to announce that St. Clare’s has recently been approved to build two new affordable family housing projects.  The address 48 Abell will have 190 units and the address at 200 Madison will have 82 units.

Visit their website here, and also read their invitation to donate here, to provide more details if you are able to help.

Favourite Thing #2:  Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC)

Many of you will know that I co-founded the TDRC in 1998.  Don’t let the name deceive you!  The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee declared homelessness a National Disaster in 1998 and helped put the issue of homelessness on the national radar:

  •  a federal cabinet minister was appointed to deal with the issue;
  • a new federal homelessness program was funded (SCPI – now HPI) and over $1 billion allocated to homelessness over the last 8 years;
  • more monies federally and provincially were allocated for housing through the Affordable Housing Program;
  • increased awareness and political responses to emergencies ranging from tuberculosis outbreaks to extreme weather hardship and deaths;
  • local wins such as the housing victory for Toronto’s Tent City  which have had a ripple effect across the country;
  • growing recognition and outrage that the extent of homelessness and inadequate housing in Canada constitutes a violation of human rights.

TDRC never takes government funding and believe it or not, has existed for nine years on special project funding and on donations from individuals, faith and labour groups. 

They have now launched a daring project that looks at the #1 prerequisite for health, named in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion – peace.  This project will examine the diminished spending on social programs while Canada wages an increasingly expensive war in Afghanistan.

If you can donate here’s the info: Make the cheque payable to the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee or if you would like an income tax receipt, make the cheque payable to “Phoenix Community Works Foundation” and write on the bottom that the donation is for the “homeless project”.  In either case, please mail your donation to: TDRC, 6 Trinity Square, Toronto, ON M5G 1B1.

TDRC website

Favourite Thing #3:  Home Safe – a film about homeless children with Sky Works

Several years ago former journalist (now Toronto City Councillor) Adam Vaughan declared to me that in his opinion, politicians would never deal with homelessness until a homeless child or children died.  I was angry, outraged, frustrated and sad.  Then I remembered it had already happened.  Then, I got more angry, outraged, frustrated and sad.  I was lucky that my friend and film maker Laura Sky was on the receiving end of a lot of that emotion and together we delved into the troubling concern that the issue of homeless families is so invisible that only deaths would necessitate a political response.

I sit on the Sky Works Charitable Foundation Board of Directors and Laura and I, with tremendous Board support, began a dream.  We realized that we could and should do a film together on a subject that remains hidden – in suburbs, rural communities, in motels and overcrowded apartments – homeless children and their families in this rich country. 

I am the Executive Producer for this project (fulfilling a long time dream to make a movie) and Laura is the director.  It is an ambitious project.  We have been involved in research for over a year and plan to film in Calgary, Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton and Toronto.  The film will engage children and their parents, it will give them a voice and it will provide a community development and organizing tool for years to come.  I believe it will have the power to move mountains and ultimately convince the government to build housing.

“Nothing could have prepared us to witness Canadian children waiting in line to sleep on a church basement floor, carrying their possessions in small hockey bags, hanging on to parents who had no home to offer them. The children were quiet, tired and subdued. Exact figures are hard to arrive at, but a very conservative estimate puts the number of homeless children in Canada at 22,500.” Please click here to read more about this project

I’m happy to report that we began filming in November.  We organized a special children’s forum on homelessness to coincide with the visit of Miloon Kothari, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing.  Children from Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto and the GTA, some with a history of homelessness and some not, voiced their concerns to Miloon.

A final thought……

I would be honoured if my 3 Favourite Things became your treasures too. I know that some of you may not be in a position to give financially but I hope you’ll find a way to stay connected to one or more of these projects.

When they’re home – make them care about homes.

I am asking everyone to complain to their Member of Parliament in Ottawa, or when their MP is ‘home’ for their holiday break.  Where is the money for housing?  What will happen in 2009 when 3 federal programs come to an end – the affordable housing agreement, the rehabilitation program (RRAP) and the federal homeless program (HPI)?  Where is the national anti-poverty strategy? Where is the national child care program? Where is the money for cities?



Thanks to Bob Crocker for editing and Dave Meslin for design.


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