Cathy Crowe

 

 

 

Newsletter No. 34 
May  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.



Bonnie and Kerre Briggs
photo: Vince Pietropaolo

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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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 go to http://tdrc.net/resources/public/dying_for_a_home.htm.

 

 

Excerpts From Chapter 10 – Bonnie and Kerre Briggs

 


TALENTED DUO

 

They’re just 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.

– Cathy

 

 

ON MEETING

 

Kerre: we met at a dance in Kleinberg at the Binder Twine Festival. There 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 the time.

 

Bonnie: I had on this old granny gown, it was a long, long dress with puff 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 to hitchhike 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. We 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 most 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 Brampton in 1953, but grew up in Willowdale, in Toronto . I spent a number of years travelling back and forth to Florida 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 years.

 

K: I was born in 1956 in Montreal 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 in Quebec , 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 normal development.

 

My mom came from a really wealthy family. They were "in sugar" – St. Lawrence, or Redpath. In 1939 Mackenzie King seized my grandfather’s assets, 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 Lancaster 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 Bouchards when they first came to Canada in the 1600s, when Quebec was called New France . In 1907 my grandfather anglicized his name to Briggs in order to get work. A lot of early 1900 immigrants to North America 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 French-Canadian friends.

 

I grew up in French-speaking Montreal , an area that was the industrial heartland of the city. I remember hearing the shift whistles at the factories, near the Lachine Canal . My parents moved us to a Montreal 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 Toronto , in 1972. I was about fifteen. So Toronto 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 with her.

 


on becoMing homeless

 

B: In 1986 we were living in the basement of a house that our landlord 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 at Leon ’s, a furniture store. Thank god for the Leon 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 wanted to 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 watching the 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 Toronto , 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 shelters, in the visitors lounge at Humber Memorial Hospital , 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, Rendu, Evangeline.

 

K: There was so much pressure. It almost caused us to split up. Being 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 in north Toronto , 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 wheel now?"

 

B: Somehow Kerre was able to perform his job to his usual high standards 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 for awhile.

 

K: We were really only homeless for that one big episode until Mel Lastman, who was mayor of North York in 1988, made moves to get rid of rooming houses. O ur 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 move in.

 

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 North York . 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 these events.

 

The first activist thing I did, though, was in 1971. I circulated a petition at my suburban Montreal high school, demanding that the American government, which was Richard Nixon then, stop doing nuclear testing in Alaska and Amchitka . 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.

 

B: The North York municipal building is still there. We were also part of the fight against the Front Street extension. After I graduated from the Community Worker program at George Brown College , 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 backed off.

 

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 figure, "Hey, 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 Europe 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 to wake up and assume, fulfill, their responsibilities, for all Canadians.

 

B: The government must get back into housing. They took us out, they can 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, Nancy , 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 for housing.

Cathy

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

 

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