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#52 - January 2009 Newsletter

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 20 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.


pdf version of this issue

  1. ‘Housepaint Phase 2’ exhibit. Go see it!
  2. Recession Relief Fund Coalition calls for emergency federal aid. Please endorse the Coalition’s call!
  3. Allan Gardens Protesters’ Lawsuit against the City and Police Ends in $100,000 Victory
  4. Economics for Everyone. A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. By Jim Stanford (Fernwood Publishing, 2008). Cost: $24.95

Happy New Year? 

It was just over a decade ago when we declared homelessness a ‘National Disaster’ in Canada. In the ten years that followed, with the Big City Mayors across the country signing on to our declaration, with the United Nations confirming our declaration by calling the homeless crisis “a national emergency,” we have witnessed 10 years of inaction by the federal government. Homelessness in Canada has only gotten worse over the past decade and now with the recession and the bitter cold weather we have all been seeing, and the same old inaction by federal officials, the plight of homeless people in Canada continues to worsen.

Over the holidays a friend of mine asked me how I was doing, how my work was going. I thought about it and then quickly realized that I was very tired and all in all, things were not going that well. Sadly, a national housing program does not yet appear to be on the federal government’s radar. With growing numbers and worsening conditions for homeless individuals and families, I knew that I had to get from being tired to being inspired if I was going to carry on. Fortunately, once I started looking around at the work of others, both individuals and different groups working collectively, the inspiration to continue was not that hard to find. The right thing to do is the right thing to do and I realized that I was not alone in knowing that.

Happy New Year?  What follows has inspired me to hope so.

1. ‘Housepaint Phase 2’ exhibit. Go see it!

Until July 5, 2009
Institute for Contemporary Culture, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
Roloff Beny Gallery, Level 4

Most of us probably know the story of Tent City – it’s a story of solidarity with homeless people against a big corporation and City Hall, that resulted in a huge political win – HOUSING!

In the late 1990s a handful of homeless people began to squat on five acres of polluted yet valuable undeveloped land on Toronto’s waterfront. A huge corporation, Home Depot, owned the land wanting to build a big box store. With growing homelessness and overcrowded shelters, Tent City grew and grew to a population of well over 100. In 2002, Tent City residents were inhumanely evicted by Home Depot with the assistance of police and City of Toronto staff.

Artists took notice and years later commemorated Toronto’s Tent City in a ‘street art’ exhibit titled ‘Housepaint’. Unbeknownst to most former Tent City residents and activist groups like the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the original Housepaint exhibition (Phase 1) was briefly installed on the still vacant site of the former Tent City.

According to the ‘Housepaint’ website:

“Over three days in June 2008, through storms, flood, and rainbows, ten of Canada’s top street and graffiti artists each painted a simplified canvas house to commemorate Tent City’s previous residents and homeless people who died on Toronto streets. The Housepaint project, curated by Devon Ostrom, was commissioned by Luminato Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity in collaboration with Manifesto Community Projects, as part of StreetScape 2008.

“The sizes of the painted houses are based on the approximate income levels of people in Toronto, i.e. two low-, two high-, and six middle-class homes. At Tent City, the original site-specific installation was surrounded by construction fencing that excluded the audience and prevented them from passively viewing the artists at work. This temporary gated community of street artists included: Cant4, Case, Dixon/Royal, Dstrbo (HVW8), EGR, Elicser, Evoke, Starship (HVW8), Lease, and Other.

“The fencing surrounding the houses was covered in a wall of 560 small canvases that was painted as one piece by Daser (one of Canada’s first and most renowned graffiti artists.)  On the back of each canvas was the name of one person who died on the streets of Toronto due to lack of shelter. These small 12 x 12” canvases completed the transient memorial and were given out during the last hours of Luminato 2008.”

Housepaint is now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, presented by the Institute for Contemporary Culture. It is the first exhibition of street art in a major Canadian museum. Dri, a TDRC Steering Committee member and essentially the first person to squat at Tent City, joined me for a private tour of the exhibit at the ROM by curator Devon Ostrom and Laura Comerford, from the Institute for Contemporary Culture. We were each affected by the exhibit and look forward to seeing it evolve. As Dri later noted, “I was really impressed by the exhibit. It is majestic.”  Through the run of the exhibition, every month-and-a-half another street artist will be invited to respond and add to the canvas houses from Tent City and the previous art work in the sequence – layering the exhibition with meaning and building organic connections between the works. The exhibit runs until June 2009 and the ROM plans to program several events around the exhibit that could include film, panel discussions and events for children and families.

2. Recession Relief Fund Coalition calls for emergency federal aid. Please endorse the Coalition’s call!

In early December 2008, in a Bay Street boardroom, an unusual alliance of business, charitable foundations and front-line agencies was formed. Within two weeks the Recession Relief Fund Coalition issued a media advisory announcing its call for the federal Government to create a Recession Relief Fund which would support Canada’s most vulnerable populations. The Coalition is national in scope.


With a recession under way, the need for services provided by the front line agencies serving Canada’s most vulnerable will increase.

It is anticipated that all levels of government, faced with deficits and declining tax bases, will cut spending. Social spending grants to agencies are not seen as core spending and are often the first things to be cut. In addition, Foundations and individuals, facing 30% plus hits to their equity portfolios are likely to cut back on charitable giving. Corporations facing layoffs, decreasing profitability and in many cases fighting for survival will likely cut back on charitable giving and philanthropic sponsorships.

At a time of increased demand and decreased revenues, many agencies will be very hard pressed to maintain service levels. Some agencies may be forced to lay off staff, cut programs and even close their doors creating greater crowding, demand and pressure on remaining agencies. At the same time, more and more people will be requiring help.

The result will be an increase in the number of homeless men, women, children and families. There will be overcrowding in shelters, deteriorating health conditions and increased mortality. Increasing levels of extreme poverty will lead to higher costs for the healthcare system, the criminal justice system and for remedial social services.


We call on the Federal Government to immediately create a Recession Relief Fund which will include:

  • preventing spending cuts to public and private not for profit agencies serving vulnerable people including children, youth, families, immigrants, those who are homeless, un/under-employed, senior citizens, people who are disabled and those suffering from mental illness. (some funding programs are set to expire March 31, 2009)
  • increase funding to all HRSDC (Human Resources and Social Development Canada) and settlement programs, including doubling the existing level of funding being provided through the HPI (Homeless Partnerships Initiatives) program to supplement funding that is projected to be lost from private sector sources and increase funding levels as required.

In addition, we call upon the Federal Government to invest a portion of proposed infrastructure spending on social infrastructure by implementing a fully funded National Housing Program.

Please sign the declaration on the website and distribute it widely through all your networks!

Below is the media advisory and the coverage in the Toronto Star.

Media Advisory: For Immediate Release

Recession Relief Fund Declaration Launched

Federal Government Spending Mandatory to Support Canada’s Most Vulnerable

Toronto, December 18, 2008

The Recession Relief Coalition, a network of agencies, foundations and business people, is calling for the Federal Government to create a Recession Relief Fund, which will provide support for agencies, such as food banks, drop-ins, shelters and employment centres, providing essential services to Canada’s most vulnerable people. This fund would also provide money for a National Housing Program.

“Foundations have had their endowment funds hit by the collapse in equity prices, many companies are fighting for their survival. Individuals are experiencing declining net worth and are afraid of losing their jobs,” stated John Andras, Senior Vice President, Research Capital. “We cannot expect the private sector to maintain the donation levels to front line service providers.”

As donations decline, demand is increasing. Food Bank usage is rising and drop-ins are seeing greater numbers requiring services, including more families.

“Many folks, when they lose their jobs, can hang on 60-90 days before we start to see them,” asserted Bob Rose, Program Director, Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, a member of the Toronto Drop-in Network. “With 60,000 jobs lost in November in Ontario alone, we know demand is going to increase dramatically.”

“Unless the Federal Government steps up to close the funding gap, many agencies will have to lay-off staff, close programs and in some cases will not be able to survive,” said  Bill Morari, President, The Rotary Club of Toronto. “This will only increase the load on an already over stretched system. The private and charitable sectors cannot do this alone.” 

What we are seeing is happening in every municipality across Canada. The Government of Canada must provide emergency funding now. “We urge every agency, every business, every individual across Canada to sign the Declaration,” said Mr. Andras. “We must act now, while the Budget is being drawn up, to remind Ottawa that people are hurting and that the Federal Government has a responsibility to all Canadians.”

News coverage:

3. Allan Gardens Protesters’ Lawsuit against the City and Police Ends in $100,000 Victory

With this winter’s harshness both in terms of weather and the recession plus City Hall’s relentless refusal to open more shelters or warming centres – there was a small glimmer of sanity in the form of a legal settlement. It was a pure and simple moral victory worth $100,000.

For a period of approximately two years, from 1999-2001 in Toronto, Friday night meant that a small group of activists spearheaded by students Oriel Varga and Elan Ohayan and Alex Brown, a homeless man, would sleep outside at Allan Gardens. Although I did join them for one of their Friday nights, my main contribution was to be available as surety should they be arrested and to support their actions, press events and gatherings.

Here is an excerpt from their media announcement about the win.


TORONTO – After 8 years of delayed justice, the City of Toronto and Toronto Police have paid a substantial settlement to three organizers of the Allan Gardens Project. The housing activists will be directing the entire sum of over $100,000 toward grassroots housing initiatives throughout the city.

The Allan Gardens Project was a peaceful protest that began in August 1999 after the police breakup of OCAP's Safe Park. It included students, homeless and other community members calling for public housing. For over 120 consecutive Friday nights at Allan Gardens Park, protesters decried the continuing housing crisis in Toronto as well as police brutality and harassment of the homeless. The sleep outs lasted over two years until November 2001. A violent crackdown by Toronto's emergency taskforce unit in October 2000 resulted in false charges that were later thrown out of court. Three anti-poverty activists (Elan Ohayon, Alex Brown, Oriel Varga) promised that such intimidation tactics would not cause them to back down and promptly launched a lawsuit against the City of Toronto and Toronto Police. Now, eight years later, only days before the court date, the city and police have finally been forced to pay a settlement, all of which will go toward housing initiatives.

The activists had planned to argue, in a two week court trial set for December 2008, that given the lack of safe affordable housing the homeless have the right to sleep out and set up shelter free of City and Police harassment. The activists were to be represented by renowned civil rights lawyers Peter Rosenthal and Vilko Zbogar and supported by anti-poverty experts Cathy Crowe, David Hulchanski, Stephan Hwang and Gaetan Heroux. One of the arguments to be heard in court was that a police crackdown on any shelter of a homeless person and their advocates, given the lack of housing and safe shelters, is a violation of Section 7 of the Charter – the right to life, liberty and security of person. The legal team, housing experts and community activists involved in the case will be present at the press conference.

Oriel Varga: "The duration of the process highlights the continued problems in Toronto housing and the Ontario justice system. Almost a decade after the community call for housing to be built and the many promises by city, provincial and federal governments, the building of affordable housing remains at a virtual standstill. The homeless and social justice activists continue to be harassed by the city and police. As a consequence of government inaction, homelessness continues to be a national disaster and there is an average of two deaths per week of homeless individuals in Toronto alone (according to estimates by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee)."

4. Economics for Everyone. A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. By Jim Stanford (Fernwood Publishing, 2008). Cost: $24.95. (website sponsored by CCPA)

Many of you will recognize the name Jim Stanford as one of Canada’s best-known economists. Jim works for the Canadian Auto Workers union, Canada’s largest private sector trade union; he writes a regular economics column for the Globe and Mail and is a frequent commentator in the media.

Economics has always scared me, yet it’s a social science so I should be able to grasp it. I’ve always used the excuse that I’ve never studied it. In fact, I’m not aware of any nursing faculty in the country that makes ‘Economics 101’ core curriculum. Yet economics and economic policies shape what we do – where and how we work, what our community looks like, who benefits and who suffers. It has been the result of our economic policies that I do what I do, working as a nurse on the issues of homelessness and poverty. It’s why I worked to declare homelessness a national disaster in 1998 and why I recently helped to form the Recession Relief Fund Coalition.

It’s also why I recommend Jim’s book: Economics for Everyone. A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism.

I’ve heard Jim Stanford speak many times. I’ve also witnessed first hand how he’s helped bring to CAW members an ‘economic literacy’ in order to support their fight for change. His uncanny ability is that he cuts to the chase, demystifying and explaining, usually with a lot of humour.

The book is a good tool and the website includes course outlines, sample lecture slides, student exercises and an on-line glossary. Jim has made getting information a lot easier and with information, inspiration can follow.

Happy New Year?  Hopefully!


Thanks to Anthony Rapoport for design, layout and web support, Bob Crocker for editing.

Photo credit: Devon Ostrom

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