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#57 - Summer 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.

Beric German, Cathy Crowe and Ann Fitzpatrickpdf version of this issue

Reflections and a Bit of a Rant

My time as an Atkinson Charitable Foundation Economic Justice Fellow (twice extended!) has come to a close. I received the fellowship in 2004 for a period of two to three years. In 2007 it was extended for an additional two years. In 2009 it was extended for an additional six months – this latter extension so I could spend an additional ‘burst’ of energy fighting this recession’s impact on people who are homeless or vulnerable to homelessness.

I was privileged to be ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by Atkinson. It has been an incredible opportunity because it allowed me the freedom to do my work as a nurse on the ‘upstream’ and the ‘downstream’ aspects of Canada’s man-made homeless disaster. I insist on using the word disaster because other words like crisis, emergency and catastrophe don’t do justice to the problem.

I was honoured to be in the company of the other Atkinson ‘fellows’, although Roy Romanow is the only real fellow. The Atkinson Fellowship ‘gals’ include Armine Yalnizyan and Uzma Shakir. We come to our work in our own organic way which reflects our passion and commitment to human rights, the betterment of social programs and social justice.

During my fellowship I became a grandmother – twice!  For me, that re-immersion into the vitality and remarkable spirit of infants and children was an important reminder of the practical childcare and education needs of families. I have only great admiration and appreciation for the work of Atkinson’s Executive Director Charles Pascal who recently completed his prescription for early learning needs for Ontario Premier McGuinty, ‘With Our Best Future in Mind’. An early mentor of mine once told me that to deal with homelessness in the long term she would prioritize the needs of children. Children not only need a home that is safe and affordable but parents and their children need care and attention paid to the systems that surround their growth and learning needs. I encourage you to review Charles Pascal’s report at:

Fellowships are often attached to academic, research or policy institutions. I was fortunate to have the freedom to take my fellowship wherever I would feel most at home, so thanks to the Sherbourne Health Centre for providing me with an inspiring home for five and a half years. Their work on providing non-discriminatory and accessible health care for people carries on.

The years of my fellowship have been colourful, busy and never a dull time. I’ve been through two blackberries, received two more honorary doctorates (University of Ottawa and McMaster), suffered bedbugs in a posh Calgary hotel, was arrested at Queen’s Park for setting up a tent in protest, completed the book Dying for a Home, had the opportunity to be Executive Producer of two documentary films (Home Safe Calgary and Home Safe Toronto) with my good friend Laura Sky, and I launched this monthly electronic newsletter.

Over the last few years I covered a lot of ground, literally, visiting in some cases more than once: Montreal, Hamilton, Ottawa, Sudbury, Kingston, Tyendinaga, York Region, Edmonton, Windsor, Cobourg, Winnipeg, Sarnia, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Waterloo, London, St. Catherine’s, Regina, Vancouver, Calgary, Chatham, Sault Ste. Marie, Halifax and New York state. I only accepted invitations to communities when it was clear they were dedicated to work on the issue, could identify what help or support I could provide, and would include the general public including homeless people in my visit and tour. I came to greatly appreciate the local activists and community groups who continue to struggle with worsening conditions in the midst of the homeless disaster and now the recession. I made many new friends on these trips, friends that provided much needed spirit and encouragement that would be sadly lacking back in Toronto.

Although I witnessed some innovative programs, most were created within the constraints of totally inadequate funding, or funding with strings attached. Other programs such as Calgary’s Children’s Cottage and Discovery House have created a brilliant standard of care that should be universal. The Discovery House children’s play scene in the documentary film Home Safe Calgary remains my favourite.

However, I have to admit to being mostly appalled at some of the conditions I witnessed, conditions I did not ever expect to see:

  • A concrete ‘drunk’ tank in an emergency shelter with no bed and a hole in the ground for toileting purposes;
  • Communities with no detox, no treatment centre, no women’s shelter, no day drop-in centres, no shower facilities and no public washrooms;
  • A shelter with its own X-ray machine to screen people for tuberculosis, not run by the local health unit or as far as I could tell properly trained medical staff;
  • Community after community after community with no emergency family shelter and chronic use of old, seedy motel/hotel rooms for homeless families;
  • A major city that for years sheltered homeless families through reliance on a voluntary church program. Churches or other places of worship opening for only one night resulting in the forced  migration of families with children to a new gym or church basement floor space night after night, space they would be also forced to share with single homeless adults.

Back at home in Toronto I continue to be painfully reminded of the dire circumstances that remain the norm across the country.

Melvin Tipping and Marty Lang, both featured in Dying for a Home, have themselves died. Marty’s close friend April, pictured in the book with him on the day of the Tent City eviction, has also died. It remains shameful that the Homeless Memorial in Toronto has run out of room for its growing list of homeless deaths.

I do not believe we have learned much since the TB outbreaks, let alone SARS. Andrew Nikiforuk pointed out the “Cyclical nature of plagues, scourges and emerging viruses that erupt when social disasters like overcrowding, hunger and homelessness devastate a country.”

That’s what I’ve seen – devastation and that was pre-recession.

We are alarmingly ill prepared for H1N1 or a catastrophic illness in the homeless population.

In Ontario, ‘Ontario Works’, one of our social assistance programs, functions as a “homeless making machine”, according to a respected community worker. In the absence of a strong social safety net including welfare and unemployment insurance, victims of the catastrophic collapse of the lumber, mining and manufacturing sector are acutely vulnerable to homelessness.

Advocacy work has been severely compromised by the ‘carrot’ of HPI and SCPI federal homelessness funding. There is further compromise by the punitive contractual requirements for municipal funding. Increased reliance on corporate donations further removes advocacy from the recipe of action once inherent to any organization’s work on homelessness or poverty.

As Naomi Klein so aptly described in her book ‘Shock Doctrine’, crisis fuels opportunistic endeavours. Why else would Canadian cities embrace an American model of responding to homelessness?  The ‘Housing First’ philosophy and its formula of ‘Ten Year Plans’, shelter closures, homeless counts, by-laws against homelessness, anti-panhandling laws and ‘Streets to Homes’ programs have infiltrated most major Canadian cities and there is little critique or examination of their origin, their purpose and their real impact on homeless people.

Sadly, despite my efforts and the efforts of a great many others, homelessness in Canada remains a very real disaster and as this recession unfolds, the disaster is only going to grow with no real end in sight. As I have said many times before, Canada desperately needs a National Housing Program and we need it now!


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

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