Cathy Crowe

 

 

 

Newsletter No. 32 
March 2007

 

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 18 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.

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1.  Two more years! 
2.  New Book: Dying for a Home. Homeless Activists Speak Out
3.  Will the Conversation be Alive?
4.  Remembering and honouring - Melvin Tipping


1.  Two more years!

I am excited to report that the Atkinson Charitable Foundation has renewed the Economic Justice Award that I received in 2004 for another two years! click here for details

I am grateful that the Sherbourne Health Centre has agreed to continue to host me for 2007 and 2008, which means that this month I will be joining them as they move into their beautiful new building across from Allan Gardens in Toronto.

Over the next two years I plan to: work on local issues and emergencies that impact on people who are homeless; play a central role in various national networks (Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, National Housing and Homelessness Network, National Housing and Homeless Coalition, National Working Group on Women and Housing); strengthen outreach and communication efforts with emerging housing partners in places such as Calgary, Sault Ste. Marie and Kingston; allocate time to produce a film and community development project about homeless families and children with filmmaker Laura Sky; and support homeless initiatives at the Sherbourne Health Centre such as the new infirmary.

If you scan through past newsletters or review other sections of my web site you’ll see I’ve been able to work on many critical issues ranging from pandemic flu to bedbugs to discrimination and the right to housing.  I would never have had this opportunity were it not for the Atkinson award and the support of the Sherbourne Health Centre. 


2.  New Book: Dying for a Home. Homeless Activists Speak Out

A project close to my heart is coming to a book store near you!  As I write this newsletter a book I have completed with a number of homeless activists has gone to press.  It’s called Dying for a Home. Homeless Activists Speak Out. (Between the Lines, 2007) and will be released in April. 

In the book I tell the story of how the Canadian icestorm helped me to realize that homelessness qualified as a man-made disaster.  I introduce you to 10 homeless activists, men and women, who while homeless, demonstrated courage, perseverance and eloquence in the face of conditions unimaginable to most Canadians. They share their personal story of homelessness, living in crowded and dangerous homeless shelters for years, sometimes on grates, in tents, trailers or pre-fab disaster housing. 

These experts expose the real truth - homeless people don’t choose to be homeless, they all want housing.  Canada needs a national housing program.

All proceeds from the book will go towards the participants who were committed to telling their story.  I hope you will look for it in your local bookstore in April.

More information will be available soon from Between the Lines.


3. Will the Conversation be Alive?

In February I was invited to the City Toronto Summit 2007 to sit on the housing panel.  Over 500 people attended the two day forum.  The following are my panel remarks on Day 1 of the Summit .

Thank you for including me in this year’s Toronto Summit.  I want to begin with two very different success stories which remind us that everyone can and should be housed.

The first success story began with a tragedy.  In 1985, a former fashion model, Drina Joubert, was found frozen in the back of a truck at Sherbourne and Dundas.  There was a huge public outcry.  In 1986 the Ontario government created a program called Project 3000 - 3,000 new units of affordable and supportive housing.  The program was designed to ensure that housing money was twinned with support funding from one of the ministries such as Health.  As writer Austin Clarke wisely said ‘You can’t just give a man a warm place to sleep and think that all the pain he has experienced will go away.’

That money was well spent.  People still live in those units – I could show them to you.  If some of you have not seen such housing it would be good to see.

The second example of people desperately wanting housing is perhaps best illustrated by the actions of the 100 plus people who settled at Tent City.  Tired of shelters and waiting on housing lists, they built a community that had: 50 shacks, pre-fab and portable housing units, generators, 6 portable toilets, running water, a shower, even streets with names like ‘Billy Lane’.  It was perhaps the one time that business, service clubs, labour unions, construction companies, architects, caterers, the film industry, media and advocacy groups came together to do something so real. 

It meant that there was a huge public outcry when Home Depot evicted the encampment and Mayor Lastman suggested the people should go into some 200 empty shelter beds, which were not empty.  There was a huge public outcry because people knew, first hand that these people deserved housing.  And guess what, they won it.  Federal money just sitting at the province, (Does that sound familiar?  Consider the $392 million dollars sitting there now.) was leveraged by the City and an emergency rent supplement program was implemented.  People were housed!

The money for that program was also well spent.  Supporting programs like this always makes politicians look good, so I don’t know why they don’t do it more often.

I have just completed a book called Dying for a Home. Homeless Activists Speak Out which will be released in April.  The book profiles 10 people who have been homeless and who have been fighting for a national housing program.  This is what Marty Lang, who reminds me ‘he’s the expert!’ had to say.  First he describes the absolute delight of people when they won housing after their brutal Tent City eviction.  He recounts visiting fellow Tent City resident, April’s new apartment.  

April: “I know what you’re gonna do first. You’re gonna flick lights on and off and flush the toilet.”

Marty: “And that’s exactly what I did.”

Thankful for his own home, Marty describes the ongoing reality for others not so lucky:

“To the politicians who think they can force people to sleep in a shelter, I would say: ‘Have you ever walked at 11 PM at night and talked to the people who are out there in their sleeping bags and asked them why they aren’t inside?’ Well, it’s because of tuberculosis, and other new epidemics, like bedbugs. And Out of the Cold spaces are for one night only.  They might have eighty people for the evening and there are no shower facilities.  People coming in, just lying down in their clothes.”

“I’d like to take the federal minister of housing out for a tour to show him or her where so many people are sleeping because they’re homeless.  Toronto is the worst in all of Canada …I know all the hidden outside sleeping places.  I would like to talk to him…and show him these places.  I’d say ‘Did you see some people under just a little grey Salvation Army blanket?  It will be cold tonight, it might snow.  I’ll tell you what, I’ll get two blankets, if you want to sleep out tonight.’ On Day 2 of the tour when we woke up, I’d take him to the City Hall washrooms when they open. Then maybe show him 2 Murray Street – an example of the type of housing he should be building.”

I want to name six dangers that continue to cause inexcusable harm to homeless and underhoused people since the Toronto City Summit Alliance released ‘Enough Talk’ in 2003.

1.   Shelter options have worsened.  Since ‘Enough Talk’, ‘planning by omission’ has meant that the City continues to rely on close to two dozen ‘Out of the Cold’ sites for emergency shelter (in the winter months only), forcing hundreds of people to move nightly (the United Nations would call these people internally displaced persons).  The costs of a SARS like illness, let alone tuberculosis, hitting the shelter sector would be unimaginable.

2.   Outdoor sleeping conditions have worsened.  Homeless people who are still unable to access shelter, have to now hunker down and forage further a field for food and survival supplies.

3.   Tuberculosis outbreaks in the homeless population.  The year following the City’s last summit a tuberculosis outbreak (2004-5) in the homeless population involved more than a dozen active cases of TB; in addition 16 shelter staff converted to a positive skin test.  The direct costs – $ .5 million.

4.   Bedbugs have spread from the original dozen shelter and supportive housing sites to infest the majority of Toronto shelters including drop-in centres. Bedbug infestations have led to worsening mental health, skin infections and huge costs for pest-control, relocation and replacement of personal belongings.

5.   Hate and discrimination grows.  Consider the recent by-law proposed by Councillor Ootes to ban panhandling in tourist zones in the City.  Consider the homeless man beaten to death in Moss Park.  Prejudice remains one of the biggest obstacles, which continues to define who is deserving and who is not deserving of housing.

6.   People are dying.  Since ‘Enough Talk’ 220 names of men and women have been added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity beside the Eaton Centre.  

Ursula Franklin says: “If a conversation can lead to action then the conversation is alive.”

Marty Lang died on February 14 this year.  He was buried this morning.  He would want me to ask you to do everything in your power to make your conversations these two days come alive, perhaps in ways you have not yet thought of.

Thank you.

Postscript
On Day 2 of the Summit, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that “he felt uncomfortable” that his government’s longstanding feud with Ottawa was leaving people in need of affordable housing and out in the cold, and “The best thing to do under the circumstances is to proceed to use the money for its intended purpose and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The funding announcement means that $312 million for affordable housing and $80 million for off-reserve aboriginal housing will be released.


4. Remembering and honouring

In the first two months of this year I noticed that front-line workers, activists and people who still struggle with the state of homelessness have lost a lot of special people- some deaths were expected, some were not.  In some cases agencies and front-line workers were dealing with 3 deaths in a week.  That includes the painful role of telling the deceased person’s friends and loved ones, in some cases trying to locate estranged family members across the country.  It includes ‘managing’ grief in a congregate setting like a day shelter, dealing with police matters, the person’s belongings, social services, funeral homes and arranging memorial services.  All of this is particularly hard when that person was someone you had a special relationship with.

One person I lost was Melvin Tipping.  These are my remarks at his memorial at Evangel Hall.

I first met Melvin in All Saints Church when he began coming to the Street Health nursing clinics.  In many ways he was the walking stereotype of who I thought was homeless at the time: male, in his fifties, single and unemployed.  He was a self-described alcoholic.  He was estranged from his family.

Boy, did he challenge the stereotypes I had and as he later reminded me “I don’t think my life is the common story of who is homeless.  I think every homeless person’s story is different, they’re not all the same, and for whatever the reason they’re on the street, homeless people need a place of their own.”

I got to know Melvin much better when I was the nurse at Evangel Hall and every Thursday for 10 years we had a visit during my clinic there.  He would bring the huge bag he always carried and always the 5 newspapers he read every day. Although he always had some need, vitamins usually, we really just had these wonderful visits talking about politics.  He would often chastise me, “I haven’t seen you in the newspapers lately” or laugh, “I saw what the Toronto Sun woman said about you”.

He was persistent (another way of saying stubborn!), determined and thoughtful. Melvin attended every day of the six-week ‘Freezing Deaths Inquest’ in 1996.  Perhaps in part because he used to play cards with one of the deceased, Eugene Upper, and perhaps in part because he always said it could have been him.  Melvin played a hugely important role at the inquest, providing expert testimony on the witness stand.  He was the only person with homelessness experience that the presiding coroner allowed to testify and even though not allowed to speak about housing, he was able to say on the stand “most homeless people want housing.”  He was brave to do that.

To the end Melvin remained appreciative of having found housing and he always adored nurse Wenda who helped him find and move into his apartment.  He was proud of how he faced his personal struggles with the support of Marilyn White Campbell from COPA.  In fact he was very happy with his life and his housing although he regretted not living closer to Evangel Hall.  Evangel Hall was his living room and all of you were his family.

I’ve written a book called ‘Dying for a Home’ and Melvin has an entire chapter in the book.  He had hoped to do interviews about the book when it came out.  His chapter includes his story and his thoughts. For example he recounted:

“I was one of the first homeless people in Winnipeg , although I didn’t think of myself as homeless at the time.  I got in an argument with my father and he threw me out.  I joined a gang.  Most of us slept on the street, wherever we could find a place.  In winter, I stayed in stairwells in apartment buildings.  That turned out to be a practice for me when I later became homeless in Toronto .”

He also told me “Faith plays a big part in my life now.”  And he wrote: “My apartment looks like a library. I have books everywhere.” And he did.

Melvin was confident of who he was.  He told me “I’ve been in an acting group. I’m pretty good.”

Last year a few amazing things happened.  Melvin completed his interviews with me for the book.  He agreed to a photo shoot with Arantxa Cedhillo, who he flirted with (naturally), and the results are some beautiful images of Melvin.

He also agreed, after many years, to let me find his family.  We located his two remaining sisters in Winnipeg and he began corresponding with Doreen.  In perhaps his last letter to her (where he enclosed one of Arantxa’s pictures) he wrote: “This picture shows my age but it doesn’t show how good-looking I am.  I only have a beard because it shows my sympathy for the homeless.”

Melvin was appreciative of the folks at St. Christopher House and nurse Cathy Newman who looked after his health in his later years.  He would be very happy that the people he cared about are here today on his birthday, to remember and honour him.

Melvin would have turned 70 today.  Happy Birthday Mel.  

Cathy

Thanks to Dave Meslin for research and layout and Bob Crocker for editing.

 

 

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