Newsletter No. 15, September 2005
I've been a
street nurse in Toronto for 16 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 critical debate.
Further information about subscribing to the newsletter is found below. I want to hear from you - about the newsletter, about things that are happening in the homelessness sector (what a sad term!), and about good things which will provide inspiration for all of us.
Films and Disasters
This month brings the annual International Film Festival to Toronto. Those of you who know me will not be surprised when I disappear into darkened cinemas at strange times of the day during September. I usually venture off by myself, but I enter into a world of friendly filmgoers who share experiences with me that cover a huge range of emotions and topics. My plan for this month was to focus my newsletter on the movies.
I was going to write a review of the various films that over the years were in some fashion about homelessness and poverty: Modern Times, the Grapes of Wrath, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Central Station, Fort Washington, Sullivan’s Travels, Heater, Fisher King, A Pocketful of Miracles … I could go on and on.
Instead I’m only going to mention two movies that are probably polar opposites, but each has had a powerful impact on me. Both movies come to my mind when I witness the recent disasters in the United States and the ones right here at home.
First, my all time favourite movie, you might laugh – it’s Peter Pan, the version with Mary Martin although I probably haven’t seen it for 35 years. I have seen many other versions, including Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent version, Hollywood’s ‘HOOK’, Finding Neverland, and the more recent ‘Peter Pan’. I’ve even gone to the Shaw Festival to see a staged version of Peter Pan.
Why am I so crazy about Peter Pan? Well, it’s a story of a warm cozy home, kids who fly away from that home and create a makeshift home somewhere else where they build a community that’s inclusive, make wild adventures happen and never really get hurt. Then, when the homesickness gets to be too much and they realize that HOME is the best – they just fly back. It’s pure fantasy; although the idea that everyone could have a home to come back to both could and should be a reality.
It is no accident that what began as a natural disaster in the southern United States, Hurricane Katrina, escalated into a man-made disaster. We now understand that the situation was worsened by America’s own refusal to acknowledge the extent of their poverty and discrimination, and their inability to prepare competently for a hurricane they knew would come. Prevention efforts and relief efforts were compromised by the scope of the poverty, by the diminished urban infrastructure and the resources that are still tied up in Iraq. What has become traumatic for viewers of CNN is the realization that they are watching Americans as either fatalities or refugees – made so primarily by their own government.
We are witnessing (or not witnessing or hearing about) this disaster without the intelligence and analysis of the CBC-Radio Canada – thanks to the forced lockout of 5,500 workers by CBC management. The BBC’s coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reported Cuban President Fidel Castro’s offer of 1100 doctors to the United States, a full 3 days before that news appeared on CNN.
I was finally able to pull myself away from CNN’s coverage of Katrina’s devastation to visit my family in Kingston. On the train, one hour outside of Toronto, CTV National News called me about the beating death of a homeless man in Moss Park in Toronto, 59-year-old Paul Richard Croutch. The charged assailants are three members of the Canadian Forces reserves, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada regiment. Mr. Croutch was found beaten in his sleeping bag in Moss Park, the ‘backyard’ of the Moss Park Armouries, an antiquated training site for reservists. Mr. Croutch was found in the early hours of Wednesday, August 31 and died later in hospital. A regimental social event took place at Moss Park Armoury on Tuesday night, August 30th. The first reports appeared in the media on Saturday, September 3. Ironically, the Moss Park Armouries is a federal site that community groups have long argued should be turned into social housing.
Both situations – the post Katrina devastation and the Moss Park attack filled me with disgust. Am I surprised at either? NO.
The disaster in the southern United States and the worsening situation on a local level here in Toronto is caused by what I can only describe as an implosion on services for people living in poverty and for people who are homeless. This implosion of services might need some explanation. I’m referring, for example, to the impact of Toronto’s ‘Streets Into Homes’ program, which has made it illegal for people who are homeless to sleep at any of Toronto’s City Hall properties; the extension of evictions of people sleeping at other outdoor spots; City Hall bureaucrats’ repeated attempts to clamp down on the Special Diet Campaign; the Province’s sudden decision to close 40% of Toronto’s detox beds; the escalating homeless death rate; and the increased police harassment of homeless people. To give you a very blunt example: I am aware of one community agency that had at least 4 of their members in the Coroners’ morgue one recent Friday. As my colleague Bob Rose stated, “we are being buried in deaths.”
This past summer in Toronto, many of us fought to convince our own urban leaders that vulnerable communities exist here in Toronto, and people in the tens of thousands required special assistance during what became known as a Killer Heat Wave. An amazing amount of activists’ energy was put into the heat issue and despite the efforts, I can only say that many thoughtful and practical measures that could have been implemented were rejected. One of the few improvements initiated by the City, in response to the community’s campaign, was that orange juice was added as a provision at Toronto’s one and only 24 hour cooling centre – juice that would be offered by Red Cross volunteers only if someone developed a medical crisis.
This is a sign to me of the entrenched and irresponsible thinking of those in power who will not respond to the needs of people.
So I was not surprised to see, given the scope of the problem and the need in New Orleans and the surrounding regions, that Mayor Ray Fagan and other African-American leaders reached the point of exasperation and broke down in tears on national radio and television pleading for life-saving disaster relief. They were asking for so much more than just orange juice.
My plan was to focus this month’s newsletter on the movies. It is ironic that I was initially inspired by a particular film “Le Temps du Loup / Time of the Wolf” (2003). This film has haunted me much like the first televised images I saw of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster meeting a man-made social disaster – poverty, inadequate infrastructure and discrimination, amidst a nation at war.
This second movie is a dark movie. It is about the farthest thing from Peter Pan you can imagine. The title comes from an ancient Germanic poem and refers to the time before the apocalypse. Its director Michael Haneke is perhaps one of the best film makers I have ever encountered. He tells the story of a family fleeing their home and characters going through a catastrophe that is beyond our own experience.
How prescient he was.
Set in a modern consumer society, the result of a far-reaching disaster becomes a disaster of human behaviour. Haneke makes it impossible for the viewer to determine what apocalyptic event has occurred but he leaves you to witness refugees as they are forced to flee, travel, flee and travel again, and forced to scavenge – to do whatever they can to survive (sound familiar?). The viewer is left imagining what natural and probably man-made catastrophe could have occurred that would lead to such deterioration of social and moral values.
Let’s not ever be just viewers – we can be engaged to make sure these types of tragedies never happen again.
|Picture: source unknown|
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