Cathy Crowe




Newsletter No. 6, December 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.

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.


In this newsletter:
On the outside: The Great Sleep-Out, my experience on National Housing Day
At the table: the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing (FPT) Ministers Meeting. November 29 and 30 in Gatineau
Alberta bound!

4. York Region – I keep going back!
5. Subscribe to This Newsletter

On the outside: The Great Sleep-Out, my experience on National Housing Day

On the eve of National Housing Day I joined about 40 other front line workers, street nurses, nursing students, CAW members and some Anglicans in a sleep out at Toronto City Hall. The event was organized to support the 60 homeless people who sleep there nightly, and to highlight the City’s need for the Ontario government to match the federal housing dollars and keep their election promises for housing.

I’ve slept out in the cold before, at a winter protest camp in Temagami, but I had never experienced sleeping on the streets of Toronto. As we set up camp at City Hall I wondered: Would security let us stay? Where should I sleep? Where would I go to the bathroom? Would I be safe?

It was mild for a late November night but it felt cold and it was damp. I was nervous, it felt unsafe, the lights were on all night and the noise was constant. I laid between two homeless people who sleep at City Hall every night. On one side of me was a quiet Asian woman who surrounded herself with small cardboard boxes, almost like a fort. On the other side, slept an elderly French Canadian man, an amputee in a wheelchair. In the middle of the night he raised himself into his wheelchair, neatly folded up his bed roll and wheeled off. I thought he was gone for the night, but he returned a half hour later, likely just taking a bathroom break.

I was finally able to fall asleep at about 5 a.m., just as dawn was approaching. I was woken at 6:30 a.m. by TV reporters wondering how well I had slept! This one night took a lot out of me. What would 364 more of these nights be like for someone? All the more reason to build some housing!

On the morning of November 22, National Housing Day, fuelled by a hot breakfast of bacon, sausages and pancakes provided by the Christian Resource Centre, "sleepers" and supporters gathered to march to Queen’s Park for a noon hour rally. We took our march to Queen’s Park, the seat of the Ontario government to remind the McGuinty government of their election promises which included: 20,000 units of affordable housing, 6,600 supportive housing units and housing allowances for 35,000 families.

At the rally Anglican Bishop Colin Johnson spoke to the crowd:

“We believe that every human life is precious. No one is anonymous to God. Every person deserves a life with dignity and respect. Because of that belief, our church is alarmed at the deepening housing crisis in Ontario.”

In a “hands on” demonstration of the need for shelter and housing, four tent-like structures were assembled in mere minutes by carpenters and drop-in centre staff. After being carried through the crowd they were gently placed on the Queen’s Park property.

The six of us that crawled into the tent-like structures were quickly arrested, charged with trespass and escorted from the Legislature’s grounds. Apparently an ancient notion of Crown privilege informed the Speaker’s decision that the Legislature is not bound by the rules of Parliament, in particular the Charter of Rights and Freedom which allows people the right to peacefully assemble and protest. The six of us do not intend to pay our trespass fines and will pursue a trial to fight for this important constitutional right.

The Great Sleep-Out however, did continue! Approximately 80 people slept out that night without the benefit of any shelter. Many of the Queen’s Park “sleepers” expressed a new understanding of the plight of homeless women and men who are forced to sleep outside each and every night. One nursing student remarked that homeless people helped her survive the night by providing her with cardboard to lay under her sleeping bag to cut the dampness.

Ironically, two days later the Ontario government announced 400 of their 35,000 promised rent supplements!

To date, Ontario’s two ministers responsible for housing, Minister David Caplan who is responsible for Infrastructure and Minister John Gerretson, responsible for Municipal Affairs and Housing continue to deny my requests for a meeting.

You can view some of John Bonnar's pictures taken during The Great Sleep-Out at:


2. At the Table: the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing (FPT) Ministers Meeting. November 29 and 30 in Gatineau

National Coalition on Housing and Homelessness partners including the National Aboriginal Housing Association, the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, and the National Housing and Homelessness Network (NHHN) came together with other groups including the National Working Group on Women and Housing and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities with a unified voice. We called on the federal government to honour its $1.5 billion commitment for new housing in the February 2005 budget.

Prior to entering the meeting, hundreds of housing activists and poor people from across Quebec, from Toronto, Edmonton and Windsor rallied outside the Chateau Cartier Hotel, where the Ministers were meeting. We continued our tradition of erecting a house when the Housing Ministers meet. In this case – a straw bale house! With a spirited crowd, noise makers and drummers we sang the following to the tune of “O Canada”:

O Canada
Terre des mal-logées
Tu ne réponds pas
Aux voix des affamées

Car ton bras
Il sait nous couper
Il est not’chemin d’croix
Ton histoire n’a pas développé
D’logement pour tous ses mal-logées

Give us a roof
Over our heads
Don’t cut taxes
Give us housing instead

O fédéral,
Fais du logement social
O fédéral,
Fais du logement social

Inside, groups presented to the FPT co-chairs, federal Minister Joe Fontana and David Morse, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Community Services. Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s Michael Shapcott and Francois Saillant from the Quebec based housing advocacy group FRAPRU representing NHHN made their presentation. The Ministers were visibly moved when housing advocate George Kelly from the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness and myself unfurled our banner BROKEN PROMISES KILL, inscribed with the names of women and men who have died homeless in Toronto.

The NHHN also released a report card to the FPT meeting, documenting federal, provincial and territorial spending on housing. My home province, Ontario has only spent $2.4 million of a potential $716 million since the 2001 Affordable Housing Framework Agreement. Shame! The entire report card will be available at

Only one week before, Michael Shapcott and I had provided Minister Fontana with a tour of several housing projects in Toronto that are still in the dream stage of development, waiting for provincial and federal dollars in order to move forward. Minister Fontana was visibly moved when a Furniture Bank client began sobbing about her family’s housing crisis. He was also clearly puzzled and frustrated that the Edmund Yu Safe House Project had not been able to obtain provincial funding in eight years.

From the hotel hallway, to an evening reception, National Coalition partners worked hard to present the issues. In the words of Michael Shapcott, “part of the success of the FPT meeting was the rush of announcements leading up to the meeting – 71 announcments in the three months preceding the Gatineau meeting. Compare this to a mere two announcements leading up the the last FPT meeting in April of 2003 in Winnipeg.”

The other good news – an announcement that the next FPT meeting will be as soon as Spring of 2005 in Halifax. Clearly, we have much to do. We hope for a new national housing framework to be announced in the months to come. We have much work to do to build political support and the timing is now ripe for you to contact your MP and demand monies in the February 2005 federal budget!

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3. Alberta bound!

As part of my endeavours to support local communities in their fight against homelessness and to learn first hand about their situation and struggles, I recently spent four days in Edmonton, just one week before their provincial election. I was the guest of the Alberta Housing Coalition at their annual conference and the two speeches I gave while in Edmonton: “Canada’s homeless disaster includes Alberta” and “ Alberta’s housing drought – it’s time to open the taps!” are on my web page at

Here’s an excerpt:

“In Alberta, major cuts in provincial housing programs were made, including cancelling the seniors’ supportive housing program. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported in 2001 that Alberta made the biggest cuts, in financial terms, on housing programs, among all the provinces and territories since the 1990s.

Alberta’s oil and gas revenues have created a financial windfall for the province. Your government has been able to retire the provincial debt and cut taxes. Yet, housing figures show that Alberta has neglected housing spending – creating a huge housing deficit. People in your cities and towns are feeling the brunt of that and your farmers really have a lot to worry about for their future.”

During my visit I joined about 800 people at Homefest, a fundraising folk concert on the eve of the housing conference. I was pleased to hear their new mayor Steven Mandel call for housing and promise to make this a municipal policy priority. Although I saw signs of extensive new social housing construction in Edmonton (unlike Ontario, Alberta has actually spent all their matching provincial monies since 2001 in the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Housing Program – creating a total of 1,892 new units!) the crisis is severe. I learned that close to 400 people sleep outside, many aboriginal, and that their social housing waiting list includes 1,200 families. In Calgary, most shelters are full of men who go to work every day. As local activist Jim Gurnett has said, “The cliches are that people are homeless because of addictions and mental health, but in fact, mostly people are homeless because there isn’t affordable, appropriate housing.”

4. York Region – I keep going back!

In my October newsletter I described my visit to York Region, a huge region north of Toronto. My nursing student Kim Galazka and I paid another visit this time with Globe and Mail journalist Michael Valpy. In his column on November 13/04 titled “Be it ever so humble” Valpy describes the unique nature of homelessness and poverty in York. Here are some excerpts:

“York doesn’t have people begging on the streets. But it has them living in cars in farmers’ fields and campgrounds, squatting in abandoned rural buildings, couch-surfing with friends and extended family relatives, and struggling to maintain scarce affordable private accommodation on wages of a few dollars an hour from jobs in fast-food outlets and other service industries……”

“A municipal van staffed by public health nurses – with food, sleeping bags, emergency clothing….patrols the region's 1,756 square kilometres nightly.”

“Most York food bank users are working poor…Forty-five per cent are children. Six per cent are retired.”

Valpy also desribes a unique solution to the emergency in York.

“Here lies the future for the homeless in York Region, perched on a mucky bald hill, padlocked behind a plywood hoarding…..corrugated fibre-board huts, construction unfinished, seem to have been slapped down on the dirt between a barn and an old farmhouse. But the view is spectacular – Lake Simcoe way off to the north, Holland Marsh to the east, rolling pastures, snow-tinged woodlots, the sort of idyllic setting that developers advertise on television as ‘gracious country living in a city environment’. And one day, if Monica Auerbach’s dream for the homeless materializes, these huts will be transformed into a cluster of homes that set a new standard for emergency shelters. Instead of the conventional shelter model – an institutional looking building with dormitories and a communal dining hall – Ms. Auerbach envisions 15 family-sized structures that offer the privacy of individual quarters, private bathrooms with bathtubs for infants, individual cooking facilties and dining space.”

Monica Auerbach is the Executive Director of York Region’s Transitional and Supportive Housing Services and she is working with Rod Duran of Durakit Shelters Inc., a company that manufactures shelters for global disaster relief to create humane and healthy accommodation to help homeless families stay in their own community. Sadly, the project remains unfinished because of lack of funding.

Kim Galazka my nursing student remarked, "I was amazed to learn of the huge homeless issue that York Region is faced with.  I guess this would be because it is not visible like it is in Downtown Toronto.  I was then very sad to learn that York Region offers such little support for homeless services.”

See for some of Kim Galazka's photos taken our visit to York Region.

In my opinion the pre-fab solution to crowded shelters is worthy of serious consideration across the country. Recent reminders of what crowding people together does heighten the urgency to consider other models of sheltering people while we wait for senior levels of government to solve the housing crisis. For example, in the last two months:

  • a tuberculosis outbreak recently resurfaced in the Toronto shelter system – two homeless men developed active TB, a third homeless man died of TB and two shelter workers developed active TB,
  • a Norwalk-like virus spread through a Calgary shelter and it was reported that over 200 people were sick with this gastro-intestinal infection,
  • bedbugs continue to spread. They are in almost every shelter in Toronto, they are in Toronto rooming houses, high rises, a Ryerson University residence and even in a York Region hospital.

See for Research Bulletin #19 on Bedbugs for more information.

If you’d like to learn more about Monica’s project or how you can support it you can reach her at

In closing, I wish you all a happy and healthy holiday. I’ll be back with more news in the New Year and hopefully lots of it will be good!

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5. Subscribe to this newsletter

I plan to publish this newsletter regularly. If you receive this newsletter directly, then your address is already on our mailing list; otherwise, to subscribe or unsubscribe, send a note to . For more information on my work including this and other editions of my newsletter please visit my web page at

There is no charge for this newsletter. Please forward it to your friends and others who you think may be interested in it. I value your feedback and ideas. Please share them with me at or c/o the Sherbourne Health Centre, 365 Bloor Street East, Suite 301, Toronto, ON, M4W 3L4.


Photo Credit: Michelle Vella Photography




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