The following is an excerpt from
my book Dying
for a Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out (Between the Lines). I will
be spending most of May promoting the book across the country. The book should
be available in all good book stores. If it’s not there please insist
that they order a supply. For more info on the book and my book tour click
From Chapter 10 – Bonnie and Kerre Briggs
always there. Or at least one of them – Bonnie or Kerre. At every single
meeting, rally, march,
demonstration, fundraiser, memorial, or conference that has
anything to do with homelessness
or housing – they are there. And you always
know they’re there because they
play a big part in whatever is going on. Whether it’s
Kerre, at the recent National
Homelessness Conference, speaking in French at the
microphone to make the
francophone Quebeckers feel welcome, or Bonnie speaking
out at the more formal City Hall
Homeless Advisory Committee, on the rights
of homeless couples, they each
have a commanding presence. It has occurred to
me that they’ve been doing this
work at least as long as I have. They’ve been homeless,
but they’ve more than just
survived their own homelessness. They’ve carried
their personal fight for a home
onto a bigger stage. They’ve continued their advocacy
work facing enormous challenges:
not-so-stable housing, hunger, not enough
money to live on, health
problems, and, I’m sad to say, discriminatory attitudes
within the very social justice
movement they’ve come to be part of.
Yet somehow, this
couple, who on first glance seem polar opposites, have sustained each other
and have maintained a steadfast belief in the valuable role they play
fighting for homeless people’s right to housing.
Kerre: we met at a dance in Kleinberg at the Binder Twine
was a big flatbed truck, with a blues rock band – the
Back Beats – playing
on it, in the parking lot of the gas station. Neither
one of us was looking at
Bonnie: I had on this old granny gown, it was a long, long dress
sleeves and a bow at the back. Friends had made it for
me. If you came in costume,
you’d get in for free. He asked me for a dance.
K: Now, I’m a blues musician, so I’d decided to go to
Kleinberg with my
harmonicas to try to sit in and play with these guys.
Now, Bonnie mentions
the granny gown, that’s really significant, because I
turn around and see her,
she’s dancing by herself, she had long blonde hair at
the time. I see this person
dancing by herself! Now, Kleinberg is famous for some
pretty unique Canadian
icons such as the McMichael Collection of the Group of
Seven. Pierre Berton
is from there too. Then, I see Bonnie, and I thought,
she’s really an individual,
I’ve got to meet her.
B: I was a half a mile from the nearest bus and would’ve had
home . . . .
K: So at the end of the night, I drove her home and introduced
her to my
dad. I figured that’s the end of that, because she
was seeing someone else at the time. But a couple of weeks later she showed up at my
dad’s house and said to
me, "Hi, do you want to go to a movie?"
B: We got married in 1983, exactly one year from the day we met.
were married in a church in a place called New Toronto,
or Mimico. I had the
white gown, the whole thing. We’ve been married
twenty-two years September
11th – not knowing that September 11 was going to be
that infamous date
many years later.
K: We got married in a Ukrainian Orthodox church because it was
in line with what I believed in. Her family are
protestants, I grew up Catholic.
they wanted to be rid of me ASAP.
ON GROWING UP
B: I was born in
in 1953, but grew up in Willowdale, in Toronto.
I spent a number of years travelling back and forth to
for vacations. I
had rheumatic fever and breathing problems, so the salt
air was helpful to me. We moved to Thornhill, and after my adoptive parents
died, I lived in Maple with an aunt.
I was adopted when I was about a year old, but I
didn’t know that most of
my life. I found out when I was about twenty-five. The
woman who brought
me up, who I thought was my mother, was really my aunt.
Her sister, who I
thought was my aunt, was actually my mother. I have two
sisters, but one just
died a few weeks ago, and I’ve got a brother. I
don’t have contact with them.
My biological mom has since died.
I just got a letter from my aunt saying that my
mother’s kids want to get
to know me. I haven’t seen them for more than fifteen
K: I was born in 1956 in
and, considering the state of premature
medical technology, by rights I shouldn’t be here. I
was born two or three
months premature and I was three pounds, six ounces. I
was pocket-sized. My
mom almost died having me. I always say I was like the
prototype. I was the
first one, then my mom had three more children.
I have a hidden sense of humour. Some people think that
when I was born
, a nurse put some poutine in my Gerber’s so that I couldn’t taste the
puréed carrots, which may have detoured my so-called
My mom came from a really wealthy family. They were
"in sugar" – St.
Lawrence, or Redpath. In 1939 Mackenzie King seized my
like ships, for the war effort, and the story is that
he was so upset that he died,
in 1942. My grandmother was an artist and created
blueprints for designing
bombers. She ended up putting my mother and her sisters and brother
into a convent or an orphanage so she could look for
another husband and
father for her kids. In 1948 she remarried, the man I
knew as my grandfather.
My dad was from an Irish-French background. They were
they first came to
in the 1600s, when
New France. In
1907 my grandfather anglicized his name to Briggs in
order to get work. A lot
of early 1900 immigrants to
had to do that. I grew up speaking
English at home. The extent of our French was watching Chez
Hélène on television,
except when we were visiting my grandfather and his
I grew up in French-speaking
, an area that was the industrial
heartland of the city. I remember hearing the shift
whistles at the factories, near the
. My parents moved us to a
suburb – Candiac – and bought a house, but they were somewhat limited by their
finances, and their
marriage quietly and gradually deteriorated over time.
For me, moving to a
subdivision in the middle of nowhere was emotionally a
big shock, and it kind
of screwed me up. At school, I had the crap kicked out
of me for seven years.
I was bullied, physically. It felt really competitive
and ultimately I never felt I
really belonged there. I wanted out.
When my parents split up I ended up living with my dad
and moving to
, in 1972. I was about fifteen. So
is like a second home. But it wasn’t easy. My dad had a lot of financial and
alcohol problems. He was also
supporting a second family by then because he had
remarried. When I was sixteen
I left home and joined the Canadian Army Reserves. My
dad is dead now
and my mom is still in Candiac. I’m still in touch
on becoMing homeless
B: In 1986 we were living in the basement of a house that our
had bought without being able to afford it. When he was
forced to sell it we
were told the new owner wanted us out. We were homeless
for a couple of
weeks, when we took a place that offered free rent in
return for looking after the family’s three-year-old autistic child. That
didn’t work out – it was like
Dennis the Menace. We had nowhere to go, so we began
going to the Relax Inn,
near the 400 and Finch, where we could rent rooms by
the week, just to get a
roof over our heads.
K: That was when we had enough money to do that. I was working
Leon’s, a furniture store. Thank god for the
family, because they knew
what I was going through, and my boss quietly let me
have some time off to go
look for a place.
On and off we spent nights wandering, looking for a
place to stay. Hours
of walking and searching, often in York Region. Staying
at motels along
highway 7, west of Keele.
B: There was a lot of discrimination. Back then, landlords only
rent to one person, not a couple. And when we tried to
get into a shelter they
wouldn’t take us because we didn’t have kids. Our
marriage was almost at the
breaking point. It was at the point where we couldn’t
stand each other. We
fought over the smallest things.
K: In some ways, I saw the homeless crisis coming. I’d been
situation develop since the mid ’70s. People were
buying up rooming houses,
especially in places like the Annex and Cabbagetown in Toronto
, and turning
them into single-family homes. Tenants were put out on
the street. Gentrification.
That affordable housing was lost and was not replaced,
and the government did nothing about it for ten to fifteen years. I
remember saying to a Global
TV reporter that if nothing was done, we were going to
have a huge housing
crisis. Back then, for every thousand units in
, only one was available
to rent. People would line up to look at that one
place, and the landlord would
pick who to give it to based on how they looked.
I know people who want to forget about that experience.
One of Mel Lastman’s
former assistants told me he’d been homeless and he
wanted to forget
about it. The thing is, truthfully, being homeless and
every night having to find
a different place just to sleep is horrifying.
B: We stayed in the back of a car for about a week, in bus
the visitors lounge at
, in a laundromat, even on
the roof of a four-storey building. We did this for
about a three-month period.
Always basically living by our wits. Kerre had survival
training from the Boy
Scouts and the Canadian Army and he coupled those
skills with his personality
and used them to keep us alive in a very dangerous
situation. One night we
were sleeping in a hallway in an apartment building and
Kerre had to talk the
cops out of arresting us for trespassing. After that
Kerre put me into a women’s
shelter – Robertson House – because I wasn’t
sleeping or eating right. Kerre was
working full-time then. I stayed at other women’s
shelters too: Street Haven,
K: There was so much pressure. It almost caused us to split up.
separated from each other took a toll on our marriage.
But I thought Bonnie
should be in a shelter for her own safety. I went and
lived in an abandoned car
, a ten-minute walk from my work. I used a subway locker
to keep my clothes and belongings safe. I never missed
a day of work and I
was never late. Nobody knew I was living in a Toronado,
up on blocks, except the guys that would be slowly stripping the car. One
day the guy knocked
on the window and said, "Hey man, how are you, can
we have the steering
B: Somehow Kerre was able to perform his job to his usual high
during all this time. He was never late, never missed a
day of work, and often
worked overtime. Often, all he could afford to eat were
potato chips, coffee,
and doughnuts. Eventually I got a union job and we were
also able to find some
places to live. We lived with some friends for a while,
about seven of us in a tiny
apartment. People were sleeping on the floor in the
living room. But landlords
still didn’t want to rent to a couple. Then we moved
to Maple, out of the city
K: We were really only homeless for that one big episode until
who was mayor of
in 1988, made moves to get rid of rooming houses.
landlord freaked and told us we had to leave. He evicted us. We couch-surfed
with friends for about six months. Then we went back to
the Relax Inn for a few
months, and then we came in "for a landing"
at the place we live now.
We got the place we’re in now because the house was
abandoned in a
neighbourhood I had known since 1960. I said to the
landlord that I would fix
the place up, cut the lawn, etc., if he would let us
B: I’ve been living in Parkdale since about 1995. Kerre moved
here in 2001.
It’s a tiny one bedroom apartment in a three-storey
building with a nice balcony.
our rent is $529 plus hydro.
Our oven hadn’t worked since before last Christmas.
We had no oven to
cook our turkey in, a few Christmases ago, only three
burners worked, but it’s
working now. we have a huge hole in the ceiling in the
bathroom. The bathroom
cabinets are hanging by one hinge, we need a new lock
on the back door,
plus various other things. But they’ll get fixed.
on becoMing anD being activists
B: When I was younger, when the Toronto Telegram was still publishing, I
used to write letters to them about saving old
buildings. One of the buildings I
was trying to save was the municipal hall in
. In high school I circulated
a petition against animal leg-hold traps. People made
fun of me.
We were both homeless in 1987. I was staying at a
shelter in 1987 during
the International Year of the Homeless and they took a
group of us to Ottawa
for a conference. I also went to Queen’s Park for No
Place Like Home, and then I
joined the Basic Poverty Action Group. Those are my
roots as a housing activist.
I thought it was important to get involved. I never
knew about homelessness
until I was homeless. I never considered that I would
ever be homeless, so for
me, it’s important to do something.
I later learned about the Ontario Coalition Against
poverty (OCAP) and the Toronto
Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC). I just started going
to the meetings and rallies.
I’ve just now been asked to join the tdrC Steering Committee. That was pretty amazing.
I’m proud of that and hopefully I can contribute due
to my experience of being
homeless – the things I’ve gone through.
K: I was more gradually politicized. I’m a true kid of the
late ’60s. I grew up
watching TV and seeing the Cuban missile crisis, JFK,
Bobby Kennedy, and then the
Martin Luther King assassination, the civil rights
movement. I was six during the missile
crisis. I’ve got a photographic memory, so I remember
The first activist thing I did, though, was in 1971. I
circulated a petition at my suburban
high school, demanding that the American government, which was Richard Nixon
then, stop doing nuclear testing in
. Some of my friends made fun of me and said, "Hey man, you should be
hanging out with girls instead of getting involved in this stuff."
I believe in reincarnation, and I think in every life
you have a theme. I think, in this one, we’re there when we are needed.
We’re here, in this life, to help people. we’re not CEOs, we’re not
rich, we don’t drive BMWs, but we’ve achieved things. We’ve had some
successes. Twenty years ago we saved the Calvington bus route. We went door
to door for three months, every house, and we personally got most of the
thousand signatures. What two people can do if you believe in something! The
bus route is still there.
municipal building is still there. We were also part of the
fight against the
extension. After I graduated from the Community
Worker program at
, I fought to get free computers available
there for alumni who needed them. At first we got a few
old dinosaur computers – it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but we
got the same level of computers as everyone else.
K: In 1990 when former metro Chairman Alan Tonks was prepared to
cut funding to Meals on Wheels, I went to the committee and reminded them
that seniors need those meals, and that the program provides jobs. They
In 1999 I also helped to get a regulation changed at
the food banks. There used to be a lot of junk donated – like chips,
cookies, and food that was out of date. After I got sick and was
hospitalized from bad food at the food banks, I worked to convince them to
pass a regulation to prevent companies from donating expired food. You know,
my father used to tell me, "Whatever you do in life, do it well."
Well, I listened.
A critical issue for us, that frustrates me, is that we
are probably the most misunderstood. A lot of people don’t understand us
because we don’t operate the way they do. I want to be understood,
listened to, accepted.
B: we have to fight all the time to be recognized, respected,
heard. Like, I
have to fight to be able to say something in a meeting.
That happens a lot.
K: I think it’s about discrimination. People look at us and
these people look stupid," and they talk down to
us. People can know us for
so long, and still not really know us. When we have
social events with activists
they often only talk about their work. I have a
wickedly funny sense of
humour, combined with a gift for mimicry for voices
[think Rich Little here
– Cathy], but activists never get to see that side of
me, not even at the Imperial
Pub. I have to be very, very serious because everyone
else is always serious.
One flaw we have as activists is we don’t realize
there are more dimensions to
people, and don’t allow ourselves to explore that.
on The solUTion: hoUsing
K: I’m interested in solutions. Sixty years ago, after World
War II, we had
a housing shortage. Men returned from
and the Pacific, and there was a
housing crisis. There was public support then to do it.
In the ’70s, same thing,
and that’s what we need now. We need the public will
again. I want Ottawa
wake up and assume, fulfill, their responsibilities,
for all Canadians.
B: The government must get back into housing. They took us out,
put us back into it.
For me, it’s about breaking the stereotypes around
homelessness. We can’t
leave people there.
Do people choose to sleep outside? People aren’t out
there because they want to be. It’s not their fault. We didn’t choose to
be homeless, and we were out there.
Why can’t they go into a shelter? Number 1: they’re
overcrowded. Number 2: they’re full of infections like TB and bedbugs.
They’re not that safe, and to be honest, they’re not that clean, and
they’re not meant for people to live in for fourteen years!
Why can’t they get a job? What jobs! If you’re on
the street you can’t get the clothes you need for an interview. There’s
no way an employer can get hold of you. How can you run all over town for
interviews, and even get a good sleep at night to be fresh in the morning?
Whenever people talk about the status of homelessness,
or the conditions
of shelters, it’s always about singles and families
with children. They don’t talk
about couples that don’t have kids – like us.
K: That good old British work ethic – "Oh, everybody
should have a job."
Well, last time everyone seemingly had a job was during
the Second World War.
That was the last time we had full employment. Full
employment is a myth…
DYING FOR A HOME
You have read excerpts from Bonnie and Kerre’s
chapter in Dying
For A Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out,
but there are many others whose voices deserve to be heard.
Melvin and Dri,
, Marty, Brian, The Colonel, James and Kevin, all share very real and
sometimes raw stories of struggle and survival.
No one, especially politicians, can begin to know anything about
homelessness until they actually begin to hear from our homeless citizens.
Real life housing activists speak out in this book and my hope is
that Canadians will begin to listen. I
encourage all of you to buy
and to read this book. All
proceeds are going to these courageous men and women, who are still fighting
Dave Meslin for research and layout and Bob Crocker for editing.
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