Learning From Our Past, Fighting For Tomorrow
to the Lakehead Social Planning Council
is my first visit to
my work as a Street Nurse, I’m usually overwhelmed trying to deal with the
day-to-day emergencies in the homelessness disaster.
If I have time left over, I like to spend it strategizing on what we need
to do to turn things around, and bring us back to the days of a national housing
program. So I will talk to you about
both, today’s reality and our continuing struggle.
I am invited to a new community, I usually do some research before I go, so I
would like to begin by saying a few words on what I found out about
For example – with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Mother
Monica and several nursing sisters from the Order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph
For example – with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Mother Monica and several nursing sisters from the Order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph came to
is a lot we can learn from the nurses of
nurses serving overseas in WW 1 earned the right to the rank of officer.
But local nurse, Miss Elizabeth Smellie from
both a Colonel and as a nurse, I can’t help but wonder what Ms. Smellie might
think of Canada’s annual defense spending – which was $15.5 billion for
2005, and growing rapidly under the Conservatives, versus the drastic cuts we
all saw to spending on social housing. As
a nurse, I think she would be shocked to see the extent of homelessness in our
towns and cities, the epidemic of hunger, the disparity between First Nations
people and the rest of the population, the low minimum wages, and the seemingly
willful and intentional neglect by our senior levels of government.
we hear that ‘the poor will always be with us’, that there will always be
people with special needs, and yes, to a certain extent there will always be
vulnerable populations in western culture. But
what is distinctly different today, than from the days of Nurse Smellie and the
nursing sisters, is the purposeful and intentional collection of forces,
policies and practices that have created this vulnerability.
the dismantling of social safety nets, the privatization of public services, and
the dramatic changes that man-made and also natural disasters are having on our
communities is creating havoc in mass numbers, especially with such depleted
social programs and infrastructure.
remember very clearly how soon I saw men in a homeless shelter after the Toronto
Inglis plant closed following the Free Trade agreement.
Within mere weeks of Mike Harris canceling 17,000 units of affordable
housing and imposing the 21.6% welfare cuts, we saw the number of people who
were forced to use drop-in centres for food and rely on emergency shelters, more
than double. We all saw
people who had faced job loss, economic evictions and welfare cuts who suddenly
found themselves homeless, never believing they could end up there.
Downloading of services such as social
housing and other programs
Hospital closures and mergers
Welfare rate cuts and the introduction of
Tighter eligibility criteria for ODSP –
in fact there existed an unspoken practice by ODSP of what seemed to be an
automatic first application denial, in addition to tighter ID criteria since
Cancellation of the federal and also
Delisting of services, such as eye exams
The restructuring and rationing of
Subtle but intentional redefining of
services, with increasing reliance on policing and security firms to deal with
social issues. For example, Laura
Sky’s movie Crisis Call shows
clearly the result of the lack of supportive housing for people with mental
Introduction of OHIP premiums, a
regressive surtax on middle income earners
And of course…corporate tax cuts!
is the context for where we are today on a number of social fronts.
making of a disaster
The World Health Organization describes a disaster as
occurrence that causes damage, ecological disruption, loss of human life,
deterioration of health and health services on a scale sufficient to warrant an
extraordinary response from outside the affected community.”
had the particular vantage point of being a Street Nurse working at what can
only be described as the epicentre of homelessness in
Canada, at the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas in downtown east Toronto.
It was from that vantage point that I began seeing things I couldn’t at
first explain, and things I couldn’t easily treat or prevent.
There was a seemingly endless stream of new people entering the shelter
system, people who remained homeless year after year, and an array of illness
and infection that people suffered through while living in a shelter or worse -
outside. I was stunned!
I saw people with pretty severe infections like pneumonia or recovering
from surgery in a shelter, people on medication for tuberculosis, and meanwhile
more and more people deciding to sleep outside rather than enter crowded and
unhealthy shelters. I remember one
day sitting in the All Saints Church drop-in thinking – I’ve gone to more
funerals and memorial services in this job than anywhere else and I’m a
community health nurse, not a palliative care nurse.
1995-96 things grew exponentially worse – a direct result of the 1993
cancellation by the federal government of the national housing program and the
1995 cancellation of
joined with several colleagues to form the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
In the summer of 1998 we wrote a report called the State of Emergency
Declaration, which used statistics and referenced the UN Charters that
in October 1998 we held a press conference and declared homelessness a National
Disaster. What we saw was not
released the State of
that federal emergency relief monies be released to communities across the
country so they could provide disaster relief for their rapidly growing homeless
populations. This effort is not unlike what happened in the
we called for a long-term solution, the 1% solution – a National Housing
Program where all levels of government would spend an additional 1% of their
budgets to build affordable housing. The One Per Cent Solution originates from research
done by Professor David Hulchanski, who determined that when our federal,
provincial, territorial and municipal governments were allocating money to
social housing they were spending on average 1% of their budgets.
first item we called for – the federal emergency relief monies essentially
occurred. Homelessness in
the second demand – the 1% solution – more recently former Minister Fontana
brought us closer to this objective with national consultations and a proposed
new Canada Housing Framework agreement but surprise, surprise, the successive
Liberal budgets had zero dollars for housing.
The Layton-Martin budget deal that led to Bill C-48 included $1.6 billion
for housing over two years, but then the Liberal government was defeated in the
last federal election.
as you may know, $1.4 billion for housing was included in the recent Harper
Conservative budget, to flow over three years instead of two.
No strings attached but also seemingly little criteria or accountability.
Trust funds will hold the money, leaving provinces to determine the mechanisms
to roll the monies out.
are many unanswered questions:
Will it be topped up in
Will it be earmarked for co-op housing?
Rent supplements or housing allowances?
Private home ownership schemes?
Will we see any social housing units
created by the spring of 2007?
does seem that funding wins or policy wins only occur when there is a momentum
of public protest, media scrutiny or public and legal inquiry through court and
inquest proceedings – which many of us have become quite experienced at.
For example, there were a
series of events that forced us to react to the crisis.
These crisis included inadequate drop-in centre funding, a cluster of
homeless freezing deaths, a community inquiry into policing practices towards
the homeless, and a community inquiry into conditions at Seaton House (the
largest emergency shelter in
wins can be measured by dollars and outcomes.
This is some of what we
the establishment of the City of
$600,000 new emergency funding for
an Inquest into freezing deaths and a
huge public outcry when the presiding coroner wouldn’t allow evidence on the
reduced harassment of homeless people by
police – at least for a while
more humane policies at Seaton House,
including funding for renovations
many new shelters opened including
federal armouries during the winter months
Public health research into the
prevalence of tuberculosis in the homeless population, which showed a 38% latent
TB infection rate
made some significant wins, and it is important to celebrate them.
But we can’t lose sight of the fact that we will need many more wins if
we are to bring about a national housing program.
mission, should you choose to accept it, is to challenge what is a national
emergency and an enormous human rights scandal.
I have three ideas for strategy that I want to propose to you.
the recent United Nations report
week, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticized
may wish to consider holding your own inquiry, and produce local evidence to
that effect. Involve your community
leaders as panelists, engage members of the media, and prepare a report that
that will bring the UN findings home.
you know that the impact predictions in
is critical that you heighten the urgency for local prevention and public health
reforms, to protect people living in poverty and other compromising situations
such as shelters or correctional facilities from a pandemic.
will not spend more time on that, but my March newsletter on the TDRC website
goes into more detail.
Join forces with us in the National
Housing and Homelessness Network to add a strong northern voice.
I probably don’t need to
tell you why it would be helpful for us to have a voice from the north on our
monthly NHHN calls. It is free and
your agency could be the disseminator of information and action strategies to
your wider community.
November 22 is National
Housing Day; marking the day the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of
Canadian Municipalities declared homelessness a national disaster.
Events are happening across the country on National Housing Day - try and
plan something here.
These are a few of my ideas;
I hope you will come up with some of your own.
From then to now
The early nurses that made
Our national housing program
was taken away from us in 1993, and we will need to fight if we want to get it
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