Newsletter No. 3, September 2004
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 critical debate.
1. A Summer Snapshot
In Toronto, over a hundred homeless people who sleep outside of City Hall were joined by homeless people who sleep under the Gardiner Expressway to protest threats of their eviction by September 1. Their latest action involved publicly phoning each of the four federal political parties in Ottawa. The phone calls were broadcast to a crowd gathered outside City Hall using a cell phone amplified by a sound system. They spoke poignantly and politely about their circumstances, and reminded the parties that thousands of people, including Jane Jacobs and Mayor David Miller had signed the Vote for Housing Faxathon during the federal election. The homeless speakers then said “We’d like to know what you’re going to do”.
Calling the Feds action photos from action held at City Hall last Thursday.
On a more personal note, I witnessed (and unsuccessfully tried to prevent) the eviction of a single woman and her three young children from the housing co-op I live in – a co-op that proudly wears the banner “1% for Housing”. This co-op is involved in social justice and housing advocacy yet it evicted a family. It was a painful reminder that the repercussions the loss of housing can have on life and health especially for children are still not widely understood. The family was able to find a much smaller apartment in the private sector. There remain 71,000 households on the social housing waiting list in Toronto .
It’s the beginning of fall, back to school time and new beginnings for some. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask what has now become a perennial question: “What do this fall and winter hold in store for homeless people?”.
With the exception of a few hundred transitional housing units (housing that has to be considered temporary and is pieced together with various pots of money) that will be created across the country, and a few hundred more units the City of Toronto plans to create without a federal contribution, homeless women and men face the endurance test of another winter. That means more homeless people sleeping in shelters, more volunteer run Out of the Cold programs that provide mats on church basement floors, and more people sleeping outside needing sleeping bags, tents and other supplies. It means a daily battle to secure warmth, food and the attention of increasingly distressed and overworked workers. It means more exposure to illness, more emergency room visits and more 911 calls. It means more deaths. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and the Church of the Holy Trinity now face the predicament of not enough space on the Homeless Memorial list for the 7-10 names that are added each month.
Imagine that the person is homeless and already has a weakened immune system. Imagine that he stays at a local Mission. Imagine that last week he stayed in an Out of the Cold programme, in fact he stayed in two of them. Imagine that he eats at two different meal programs every day, crossing the city to get to each. Imagine that he doesn’t have a health card and at first was so afraid to go to the hospital and only went after being ill for five days. Imagine that this pneumonia isn’t really pneumonia.
In recent years, Street Nurses in Toronto have witnessed an outbreak of tuberculosis, the impact of the Norwalk virus when it hit a shelter, a seemingly uncontrollable bed bug infestation and most frightening of all, the lessons not learned from SARS. The main lesson, as Florence Nightingale would say, is “Nurse the room”. That means – no crowding, lots of ventilation and infection control plans. That means housing not shelters.
4. One Solution:
Portable Houses. Little Houses
People sleeping outside are crying for housing. At Toronto’s Tent City I had a chance to see how infrastructure could be used to support and sustain a community. At various points we experimented with trailers, home made shacks, disaster shelters, DuraKit pre-fab housing, and architect John Van Nostrand’s Pro-Home model. (Many of these can be seen in Michael Connolly’s documentary Shelter from the Storm and Shelley Saywell’s documentary Street Nurse. For information on how to order see the Resources section at www.tdrc.net)
I recently picked up a book entitled “Portable Houses” that showed numerous examples of little houses that could be used in one location and then moved to another. They ranged from trailers to yurts. Perhaps Rotary Clubs, churches and city housing departments, among others, should consider thinking outside the box. Build and put up some quick and easy housing – this winter! Establish a selection process to determine who will live in the dwellings and ensure there are adequate supports in place. Then invite your local MP for a tour and ask him/her, “When are we going to get a national housing program so that we can build some real housing for these people?”.
I value your feedback and ideas. Please share them with me at
Photo Credit: Michelle Vella Photography
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