Newsletter No. 10, April 2005
I've been a street nurse in Toronto
for 15 years. In the spring of 2004 I received the Atkinson Economic Justice
Award which permits me to pursue, for up to three years, 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
I’m happy that spring is here and hope it will bring renewed energy and action on the housing front. After all, the word spring can mean “foundation, come into being, emanate, grow, develop, uprise, come unstuck, burst forth…..”
This issue of my newsletter is all about housing – here’s why.
It’s hard to not feel dejected by what was a very hard winter that seemed beset with disappointments. There was no new money for housing in the federal government’s February budget. Incredulously, despite government promises, finance minister Ralph Goodale refused to put money in the budget, saying that the logjam in Ontario had to be cleared before any new money would be committed. So, in fact our Ontario government is NOT ONLY holding up new affordable housing in this province to the total of $1.796 billion dollars – but ALSO ALL across the country. At the municipal level, Toronto City Council passed a by-law which criminalized being homeless by making it illegal to sleep at city squares, including Toronto’s City Hall square. Within days, homeless people who considered the square a safe place to sleep were harassed and moved on. Within weeks City workers ventured further and left an eviction notice at a youth squat under the Gardiner Expressway, the squat was ultimately bulldozed. Reports of police targeting homeless people in the downtown east end began to increase. Police cars, pepper spray and tasers are now discussed in the popular media as new tools in the police toolbox, to contain or control people creating disturbances.
These intentional directions by policy makers hurt people. They remind me of how dejected I was back in the year 2000 when similar policy decisions led to worsening homelessness, suffering and an extraordinary number of homeless deaths. At that time I wrote the following:
“My bandages no longer cover the wounds of my patients. My vitamins will not prevent the white plague of tuberculosis from taking another victim. I cannot even help someone achieve one peaceful night of safety and sleep. Only roofs will do that, and I am not a carpenter.”
Occasionally, after so many setbacks and attacks in our efforts to win housing and basic shelter for people, it’s hard to imagine success or policy changes that might actually help people. Then a friend recently reminded me, some of the biggest social justice wins (ending apartheid, the vote for women, ending the Vietnam War, to name a few) took years, sometimes decades to achieve.
Well, I’m still not a carpenter but I do plan to build housing. I am not alone. Here are some fabulous examples of people and groups trying to do just that. These are a sampling of the groups that eagerly prepare, fundraise, hope and in some cases pray to build real housing in the near future. In common, across this country, we would all like to see a national housing program. Please forgive my indulgence for focusing on my home town – Toronto.
Edmund Yu Safe House Project.
This project is sponsored by Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) and The Gerstein Centre. The project's primary mandate is to develop and implement a unique and alternative 'safe haven' transitional housing model, controlled and operated by consumer/survivors for homeless consumer/ survivors. The Edmond Yu Safe House is intended to be a low-stress, high support, and non-medical organization for about 16 to 20 psychiatric survivors of the Mental Health System who experience homelessness and would be considered or labeled "hard to house" people.
On February 20, 1997 Edmond Yu, a homeless psychiatric survivor, was shot dead by Toronto Police Services. The circumstances surrounding his death and the revelation of Edmond's tragic struggle with mental illness and homelessness attracted intense public and media attention. In April 1999, a Coroner's Inquest Jury delivered 24 recommendations that addressed the urgent need for 'safe houses' and a need to improve police training and expertise and repair the life-threatening inadequacies of our current mental health system.
In July 1999, a unique cross section of psychiatric survivors, family members and mental health workers gathered to create a meaningful public response to these recommendations. The Edmond Yu Safe House Project is the first phase of this response. February, 2005 marked the eighth anniversary of Edmond Yu’s death.
This project is amazing. Their fundraising efforts in their attempt to establish the house include T-shirt sales, a raffle, and an annual fundraiser dinner and dance boat cruise. But you know, these creative endeavors are unlikely to fund building a housing project. They need to buy a house, they need capital funding, operating monies and they need a federal and provincial housing program.
Trinity Multifaith Housing Association.
This is a new group that has formed with the hopes of developing housing for people who are currently homeless. Tanya Gulliver, the project’s housing worker writes:
“We have the will and the ability to put our dream into action; however we lack the money and support from the government. We need a national housing program with sufficient funding, as well as rent supplements for tenants, to make our dream a reality.”
I’m pleased to see another faith based group decide to add to our housing stock and help create a permanent solution to the homelessness crisis.
Furniture Bank collects and distributes donated furniture and other household items to assist a wide variety of persons including individuals and families who are leaving shelters or hostels, are refugee claimants, or are otherwise homeless.
“Furniture Bank is ready to build housing at our current site where we will house the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. When Joe Fontana visited 200 Madison in November, 2004 we hoped that an announcement of funding would come soon so we could begin to build. Every homeless person working in our Social Purpose Enterprise is optimistic. As one woman, whose daughter was in a wheelchair sobbed, "How can you let us live like this?" Hurry up Joe, we're ready, we're able, we're waiting. Don't break your promise to help. Find a way to break the logjam in Ontario. We are proud that the Liberals allocated funding for those suffering in other countries whose homes were destroyed. We know that your government can find a way for those in Canada who are living without a home. Our homeless deserve no less. Please hurry."
Penny Lamy, Executive Director, the Furniture Bank, Toronto
The Furniture Bank may be the closest I get to a carpenter experience. I’m on their housing committee and I can attest to a very creative team of architects and fundraisers that are waiting for the chance to build.
Homefree is an incorporated, charitable group with the mission to develop affordable rental housing for youth leaving care. This organization was formed in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and Pape Adolescent Resource Centre with some leadership from young people leaving care. Their first goal is to develop a pilot project to provide affordable rental housing for 50 youth leaving care.
"Lack of housing is a child welfare issue and affects families with children and youth. For one in five children admitted to the care of the Children's Aid Society of Toronto, housing problems are a factor. Hundreds of youth wards leaving child welfare care each year also face many challenges trying to secure safe and affordable housing. Every year in Toronto, approximately 600 youth between the ages of 18 to 21 are 'aging out' of child welfare care and need affordable housing. Between the ages of 18 to 21, these young Wards of the Society experience the end of provincially funded financial, residential and counseling supports. As a result, many of these young wards use emergency shelters or have to resort to other unsafe or inadequate housing situations. Lack of housing has a serious impact on the ability of these young people to finish school, get a job and achieve life goals.
Joan Berndt, President, Homefree Non-Profit Corporation, Toronto
Many of us are in awe of St. Clare’s because they have been able to build housing by piecing together funding and they are ready to do more. Rev. Brian Burch writes the following:
“St. Clare's is one effort to address the
needs of the homeless in Toronto. Specifically, we are trying to develop
and provide homes for those in the
St. Clare's has been around for less than a
decade, trying to do something
Rev. Brian Burch, homily given March 20, 2005.
This is what we look forward to:
Jim Gurnett from the
Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers wrote to me:
“We just had the opening celebration yesterday with lots of drumming and dancing and food and some VIPs presenting things and all that stuff. The ‘finale’ was a ribbon joining instead of a ribbon cutting, with tenants each coming forward with strips of cloth from their lives and knotting them together into a long "chain" of interdependence. But in the real daily world we are seeing so powerfully how this small change in life, to have a little safe affordable apartment almost immediately is rippling its effects through other aspects of people's lives. Last Sunday we had our first new tenant not identified on a lease when one young woman had a baby."
Clearly Canadians across this country know how to build housing. What we have all been fighting for is a national housing program to end the homeless disaster. Spring is here. Now is the time to fight.
Thanks as always to my trusty editor Bob Crocker who always makes this newsletter make sense.
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|Photo: Cathy Crowe at the Federal-provincial-territorial meeting in Gatineau with members of FRAPRU; Photo by Danielle Koyama|
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