Newsletter No. 19, January 2006
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.
Housing and Election 2006
In my last newsletter I asked a simple but hopeful question: Will housing make it on the agenda in this federal election?
There are 2 national organizations working hard to make the answer to that question a resounding YES! The first, the National Housing and Homelessness Network (NHHN), is a grass-roots national group that is coordinated by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and continues to involve communities in the fight for a national housing program.
The second group is the National Coalition on Housing and Homelessness which includes the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, the Co-op Housing Federation of Canada, Family Service Canada, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, Raising the Roof and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
The Coalition with the support of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has created an e-advocacy campaign so that you can send your personal message on housing to the candidates in your riding. It’s simple, easy to use and it’s accessible in English and French.
Before you read further please go to www.housingnow.ca and send your message on housing to your candidates.
Right now, in this election 4 million Canadians need affordable housing!
Sadly, elections are usually about staged ‘leaders’ tours, political spin machines that churn out ‘safe’ policy platforms, and media reaction to public opinion polls that never seem to ask sensible questions. Maybe that’s why voter turnout and public interest is so poor at election time.
I was interviewed in the December 24th Globe and Mail about the absence of housing on the political agenda in the first federal winter election in a generation. I replied, “I’ve been appalled. And shocked. There’s medicare, childcare, education, jobs – these are the things that are building blocks of a country, Canada. And housing is never equated in there. And I don’t understand it. It’s not like it’s this new innovative idea - oh we should have housing for our people.”
So, why is housing off the electoral radar screen? Here are my theories:
We don’t know or teach our history
The fight for a national housing program was a dramatic campaign that was fueled by the experiences and memories of the Depression years and fought by men and women (what politicians in their campaign speeches call ‘ordinary Canadians’) who, after World War II, campaigned hard for the program. One of the best kept Canadian secrets is that hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units were built with the national program. Then it was cut. I was a Street Nurse in 1993 when the federal housing program was cancelled and at the time I was oblivious to the news. Most Canadians don’t know that we remain the only G8 country without a national housing program or that, when homelessness got so bad here, we were the only country in the world where our Prime Minister created a special cabinet position and appointed Claudette Bradshaw as the ‘Minister Responsible for Homelessness’ - ironic since we already had a Minister of Housing!
We talk social determinants of health but don’t really get it
In academia and research we talk about the ‘social determinants of health’. We talk about primary health care, we talk about healthy communities but we are not talking about housing as one of the building blocks of health, life and community. How do you go to school without a home? How do you care for your health without a home? How do you have a safe community without homes? How can you have a family life without a home?
We must move from talk and research to action.
Prejudice and bias
Prejudice and bias, combined with not enough information, is subverting the real issue of housing. We have fallen into the trap of the deserving and the undeserving when it comes to homelessness and housing need.
For example, major institutions that influence public opinion, such as the media and government, too often overlook the human rights they are there to protect. Most have not yet adequately addressed or adopted the idea of housing and a national housing program as a viable solution to what is framed as the ‘homeless’ problem, a problem that they are often involved in portraying as one of personal flaw, mental illness, substance use or choice rather than one of human rights.
I could give you many examples but here are two recent ones:
A recent photo caption in a national newspaper described me as spending “more time with politicians and officials than street people”. I know that there was no ill intent meant by that line, except when does a group of people who have nothing in common except their poverty and housing status become described by a piece of urban geography, the street?
The City of Toronto is planning a homeless census/count in a few months. One of the ten questions they are actually planning to ask every homeless person is something like, “would you be interested in affordable housing?” Well, who wouldn’t be? This seemingly innocuous question presumes that homeless Canadians, for some reason, might be different than their African or American or British counterparts and not want housing.
Housing gets blurred with infrastructure
Over the last few years I have watched the MSM (that’s mainstream media) cover elections, politicians and their promises and government budgets, always lumping their coverage of housing with infrastructure. So, when monies are promised for infrastructure (read: roads, pipelines, sewers) we are acquiesced into thinking housing will be dealt with too. I don’t think we would be lulled into thinking childcare spaces count as infrastructure, or hospital beds.
Housing deserves its own coverage, beside Medicare, child care, the environment, the economy.
Political ‘no-go zone’
In the last federal election campaign, NDP leader Jack Layton was taken to task by the MSM for remarks he made suggesting that Prime Minister Paul Martin should be held accountable for the homeless deaths on the streets of Toronto. Layton was taken to task to the surprise of housing advocates, since many of us had been saying this all along. Since that election campaign we have added another 90 names of men and women to Toronto’s Homeless Memorial and Edmonton and Halifax have now begun their own commemoration of homeless deaths in their cities.
After the media backlash Layton received for stating the obvious, homelessness appears to be a ‘no-go zone’ in this election.
We have become complacent
In 1998 I co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and we declared homelessness a National Disaster. This declaration was supported by the Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, hundreds of organizations across the country and the Canadian people at large.
Eight years into a worsening disaster, communities across this country have been forced to accept church basements as long-term emergency shelters, run-down motels as shelters for families with children, and no new social housing starts in their communities, with the exception of those built by Habitat for Humanity, built with ingenuity and a huge volunteer base.
Where is our outrage, where are our protests, our rallies, our editorials, our public outcry for real housing solutions? Where does your MP stand on this issue?
With this federal election underway, should we as Canadians accept silence on housing or is it time to stand up and make our voices heard? Time is running out but there is still a lot that you can do. From letters to the editor, to radio call-in shows, to challenging political candidates at your door and at all candidates meetings, there is still time to get the issue of housing back on this election agenda. I urge you once again to access www.housingnow.ca and let our political candidates know that we will no longer accept their silence on this issue.
PS – don’t forget to vote!
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