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#55 – April, 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.

The Story Behind the Shoepdf version of this issue

1. Toronto’s Street Count – ‘Take 2’

2.  A Recession Forum with panellists including Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine), Ken Lewenza (Canadian Auto Workers) and Uzma Shakir (Colour of Poverty Campaign)

3. Dustbin Treasures – a poem by John Rook

4. The Story Behind the Shoe

1. Toronto’s Street Count – ‘Take 2’

On April 15, 2009 the City of Toronto will undertake its second street count of people who are homeless. City staff are emphasizing the count is more than a count, it is a ‘needs assessment.’ In 2006 the first street count cost $90,000. What did their ‘needs assessment’ find?  One result received much fanfare, the majority of homeless people wanted housing!!!

This year the cost of Toronto’s ‘needs assessment’ has gone up to $100,000. Similar to the 2006 count, the City will deploy approximately 750 volunteers, 300 team leaders and 50 human decoys (pretending to be homeless), plus city staffers. Team leaders and decoys will receive a $100 payment for their effort. Homeless people, those who are found and have their needs assessed, will receive a $5 fast food voucher.

The City’s Facebook site describes the purpose of the count:

“Toronto's goal is to end street homelessness and to do that we need to make sure that the services the City funds are those that homeless people need to find and keep housing.”

The site invites people to volunteer, the only requirement being that they are over the age of 18.

Why another street count or needs assessment? I have yet to hear a good answer. At the time of Toronto’s 2006 count there existed over 29 comprehensive reports that provided thorough data on both the numbers of homeless people and their needs.

Much has been written by researchers, advocates and experts in the field criticizing the City’s plan to repeat the 2006 ‘count’ and ‘needs assessment’. Issues raised have included:

  • the flawed ‘point in time’ methodology that is used
  • the attempt to count what is impossible to count due to the forced migrant and hidden nature of homelessness
  • the use of volunteers who receive one hour training and then are expected to approach strangers with a clipboard and ask personal questions
  • massive geographic omissions in its implementation
  • the purposeful targeting of what is negatively referred to as the ‘street homeless’

Less has been written about what happened since the 2006 ‘count’ and ‘needs assessment’:

  • At least two volunteer overnight shelters were shut down due to a lack of financial resources and support from the City
  • Outreach agencies that receive City funding were contractually prohibited from providing ‘survival supplies’, i.e. hot food, sleeping bags or blankets to people forced to sleep outside due to shelter overcrowding
  • 60 Richmond Street East shelter was shut, albeit the site is being turned into affordable housing, but it still meant a loss of 70 overnight shelter spaces
  • 110 Edward Street shelter was shut, also for conversion to affordable housing, but closure meant another loss of 120 overnight shelter beds
  • Salvation Army – Riverdale Men’s shelter was shut, management citing huge capital costs, resulting in the loss of still another 60 men’s shelter beds
  • However, the City’s Streets to Homes program expands and they hire an additional 48 street workers at the expense of funding experienced and long-standing community agencies who have established trust with homeless people
  • The City’s Streets to Homes program adds an emphasis on targeting panhandlers
  • Many of the homeless individuals counted as successes in the City’s Streets to Homes program stats were unable to sustain the housing they were placed in. The reasons cited included hunger and poverty after the rent is paid, geographical challenges like being ‘housed’ in a community too far from food and health services, and also unsafe and inadequate housing. The City has refused to consider an independent audit of their stats which claim housing success.
  • Police continue to ticket homeless people who panhandle, especially in the downtown core. Individuals have reported receiving hundreds of dollars worth of tickets for panhandling and ‘encumbering the sidewalk’
  • The City continues to resist opening a 24 hour reception centre which could also function as a warming or cooling centre (depending on the season) that would include beds for sleeping and proper meals

So counters/decoys/team leaders beware! 

The City’s focus on ending ‘street homelessness’ is inextricably linked to what is known as the made in the USA Housing First’ policy, which includes major infringements on homeless people’s human rights: by-laws that determine where homeless people cannot sleep and cannot be fed, enhanced enforcement of these laws, evictions of homeless encampments, homeless counts that focus only on visible ‘street homelessness’ and panhandling, Streets to Homes type programs, and drastic cutbacks in funding to life sustaining programs.

For anyone that wonders “isn’t Housing First a good thing?” It would be in a city, province, and a country with a national housing program, but this term has been co-opted for a darker purpose.

“It would be nice if the poor were to get even half of the money that is
spent in studying them”
—quote by Bill Vaughan.

To listen to a debate on the Count/Needs Assessment on ‘The Current’ go to:

2.  A Recession Forum with panellists including Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine), Ken Lewenza (Canadian Auto Workers) and Uzma Shakir (Colour of Poverty Campaign)

The Recession Relief Fund Coalition has already heard dire reports of the impact of this recession on vulnerable communities including youth, seniors, immigrants and people living in poverty. Donations are down 20% to non-profits, the shelter sector is overflowing on to mats, a 20% increase in demand for food and supplies at missions and food banks since December, families with children entering adult drop-ins needing food and longer line-ups for all services. The Coalition is in the process of developing a template for tracking the indicators of the recession’s impact. In the meantime, the group is holding a public forum with an expert panel including author Naomi Klein, CAW president Ken Lewenza and health and social service experts who will speak on the global and the local impact of this recession, the role of government and how we as communities affected can mobilize.

Save this date: Toronto – Tuesday, April 28 3-5pm at the UofT Multi-Faith Centre, 569 Spadina Ave.  For more information or to sign the Recession Relief Fund Declaration:

3. Dustbin Treasures – a poem by John Rook

John Rook is currently CEO of The Salvation Army's Community Services (Calgary) and is Chairperson of the National Council of Welfare. I’m so happy to have met John back in 2004 in the early days of my Atkinson fellowship. I tease him and call him ‘my guy in Calgary.’ When I met him in Edmonton he insisted I had to come to Calgary – eyes twinkling. Little did I know what I would see there! John was instrumental in drawing my attention to numerous Calgary homeless issues, which is in part how we came to launch the Home Safe documentary film series with Home Safe Calgary. This is John’s poem:

Dustbin Treasures

Where have they been,
Divorced and now reclaimed.
Have they danced?
Have they paired?
Were they once well-heeled?
They stick out their tongues
Exposing their souls(sp).

Once fresh and new
They ran and danced
Oblivious to their own decay.
Tiptoeing through meadows
Now crawling through minefields
Of needles and pain.

No safe rest...
Removal means Re-move-all
Regained by another. Wanting
From the pain of life.

Death brings relief
But the dustbin is once again stirred
By one who hopes
For a moment of life
Never to be found.     

Written as I watched a homeless guy looking for a pair of shoes in a dustbin.

John Rook

October 15, 1992
Manchester, England

4. The Story Behind the Shoe

For nursing students only:  take a look at the image with this newsletter – send me an email and tell me what you think the primary diagnosis is?  What are 4 other things you should consider as you examine this man’s leg? The first correct answer – I’ll mail you a signed copy of my book Dying for a Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out. Send to: with ‘photo’ in your subject line.


Thanks to Anthony Rapoport for design, layout and web support, Bob Crocker for editing. Photo credit: Cathy Crowe

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