This Ain’t Wonderland!
you for inviting me. I've been
coming here to
recently told my mom that I would be visiting
Marg and Grandpa Alex were married for 74 years.
was away during the War for over 5 years while she raised the four children.
Grandpa became an employee of the Grand Trunk Railways.
There was no union in those days; you were paid only for the time you
could work. Working people in his
lifetime were subject to horrific strikes and abuse from the police.
Later, during his time with the Canadian National Railway, there were
improvements. The union helped to
change working conditions. The
mechanics at the CNR were closer to the future automobile workers than any other
working group and were the beginning of the climb to a middle class.
was lots of housing to rent when they first moved to
he died at 96yrs of age, he told my mom that the middle class, which had
appeared in his lifetime, was struggling to maintain their status. He saw
that the social benefits achieved after the war were disappearing.
He could never understand why there was always money for wars but
never a penny for affordable housing and social programs. Throughout his
long life, and my grandparents’ long marriage, they never had the pleasure or
the privilege of owning their own home.
My grandfather was a CCF member and he had a sharp political mind. I wish he were here today to help me understand the cruelty and the absurdity of today’s political climate. He would be astonished that so many continue to have so little, and that so few in power seem to really care. It is absurd.
Over this summer in particular, I have
come to realize just how truly absurd and how illogical our entire social (i.e.
our political and economic) system truly is.
Just like what
The term ‘wonderland’ has entered our language to refer to a place that is like a dream come true – like a theme park! Well, the ‘wonderland’ for people I’m seeing, those facing hunger, homelessness, the side-effects of psychiatric drugs, discrimination in the health care system, or those who are still trying to get their ODSP application accepted, is grim. For these people it’s no theme park to say the least.
What is absurd about it all is that we keep canceling those few things that are working.
Did the federal government in 1993 really have to cancel our national housing programme?
Does the federal government really have to cancel the SCPI programme (Supporting Community Partnership Initiatives) next spring?
Eight years ago, homelessness was declared a national disaster. At that time, I naively thought it would lead to more than just a federal appointment of a Minister Responsible for Homelessness and some emergency relief monies. Many of us thought that it was reasonable to expect that the federal minister responsible for housing might get involved in a solution that would include housing.
But no, that would have been too logical a response.
The World Health Organization describes a disaster as
“any 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.”
This applies to the Canadian icestorm,
it applies to the
From the end of World War 2 until 1993 – our national housing program built 650,000 units of housing, housing 2 million Canadians to this day. That is our legacy.
The beginning of mass homelessness began with the 1993 federal budget, when all new social housing construction was eliminated. More than 175,000 potential new social housing units were lost when the programme was cancelled.
I 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.
In 1995-1996 things got markedly worse. My colleagues and I noticed:
· a new flood of ‘home-grown’ refugees entering the drop-ins and shelters - people made suddenly homeless due to economic evictions, job loss and housing affordability issues
· people were sicker and had more serious conditions and complications
· tuberculosis returned with a vengeance
· there were signs of malnutrition and not enough food in centres
· more people were sleeping outside and there were more squats and encampments
· there were more deaths including the first cluster of deaths, such as ‘the three freezing deaths’
· people became stuck in homelessness year after year after year
Unlike the victims of an earthquake or
ice-storm, the people I saw were victims of policy - a direct result of the 1993
cancellation by the federal government of the national housing program and the
1995 cancellation of
I 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
Ursula Franklin reminded us that it was a man-made disaster, and here’s what those men did:
At the federal level:
· 1995 – all new housing spending was cancelled
· 1995 - welfare rates were cut by almost 22%
1998 - housing was
downloaded to the municipalities
In the State
First, 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 type of effort is what should have happened in the Gulf coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Second, we called for a long-term solution, the 1% solution – a National Housing Programme, where all levels of government would spend an additional 1% of their budgets to build affordable housing. The 1% solution originates from research done by Professor David Hulchanski, who determined that when our federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments were allocating money towards building social housing, they were spending on average 1% of their budgets.
The first item we called for – the
federal emergency relief monies, essentially occurred.
The hundreds of millions of SCPI dollars, or as I like to call them ‘disaster relief monies’ have funded new shelter beds, renovations to drop-ins, shelters and food banks, programs that target homeless youth, identification replacement programs, even some transitional housing. The monies have saved lives and made people more comfortable in their state of homelessness but for the most part, has not housed them.
Today I would like to revisit the concept of disaster, and whistle blowing about the situation we’re in, and what the future holds in terms of advocacy.
We know it’s important to be whistle-blowers before a tragedy occurs but it’s also important to do so afterwards, no matter how many times the truth has been told and no matter what speaking out can do to your career. During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to see Spike Lee’s documentary When the levees broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. He tells it like it is – he had to.
Spike Lee, in describing his reaction to
the catastrophe in
“It was a
very painful experience to see my fellow American citizens, the majority of them
African-American, in the dire situation they were in. And I was outraged with
the slow response of the federal government.”
In the film, the people themselves speak:
“How hard can
that be, to bring in food and water?”
in her own home!”
“Not just the
levees broke -the spirit broke.”
“Hope is not
someone to know I’m suffering.”
“Where is my
Climate experts have pointed out that the first flow of climate refugees
has in fact been the people forced to move away from the
There are painful similarities between the victims of Katrina and those
facing poverty and the housing crisis here in
In fact, we know that across
1.8 million people lack
300,000 Canadians are
Over 10,000 are children
Thousands are forced to
Poverty means you die
earlier and get sicker
Earlier this year the United Nations Committee reviewed
Funding for Phase 1 of SCPI which ran
from 2000 to 2003 was $305 million. Phase
2 which ran to 2006 was $405 million. $134.8
million was added for one additional year. The programme is due to ‘sunset’
or in real language, is cancelled at the end of this fiscal year in March 2007.
To make matters more stressful and difficult, towards the end of this
summer at least six
But today, we are still fighting for the
program to continue after
We are always trying to fight to hold our ground, to save programs from even further cuts or cancellation, let alone getting any new money. Let me give you a very recent example of how desperate the fight is for the most basic life-saving programme.
During this summer’s heat wave, I
pleaded with the City of
In addition, Michael Shapcott led the campaign to identify longer term solutions which could include heat island mitigation strategies such as green roofs, the development of a maximum temperature by-law (similar to the minimum temperature by-law we have in winter that landlords have to comply with), and energy conservation measures for low-income housing. These could include energy rebates for landlords who install air-conditioning and pilot programmes to that effect.
By summer’s end, the heat alert
formula had not changed, Metro Hall was still designated as the site for the one
24 hour cooling centre, people still only got a cereal bar there and the request
to modify the by-law and look at longer term measures seem to be sitting on the
shelf. It seems nothing can be done
I’m telling you this story because the lack of innovation meant that thousands of people were left sweltering in hot rooming houses and high-rises, in some cases with room temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius. The people suffering and at elevated heat risk include people living in poverty - the frail elderly, persons experiencing serious mental health or health challenges, people on psychiatric medications, people living in isolation, with mobility issues, under-housed and homelessness.
In Parkdale alone the estimate is that the number of people at elevated heat risk is 1,200. By and large they do not have the means, nor the energy, nor the motivation to go to the lobby of a government building to sit and receive a cereal bar.
There were at least 5 heat-related
deaths during the 2005 heat wave in
Broad scientific research has shown that the greatest life-saving measures in an extreme heat emergency is access to air conditioning. Yes it may raise hydro costs, but we are not talking about people who use cappuccino machines, food processors, hair dryers, computers, TV/VCR/DVDs. In some cases we are talking about people who don’t even have a fridge or stove, a washer or dryer. Poor and vulnerable populations tend not to be energy hogs.
A/C is no longer a luxury in extreme
heat. Let’s figure out how we can
provide the relief people need. Project
Elder Cool in
Do we need dozens of deaths before we do something?
If we had a Spike Lee in
- the shelter conditions that are not meant for long-term living, including some, which I’ve discovered in communities outside of Toronto that do not meet the UN Standard for Refugee camps
- the huge number of outdoor encampments that range from cardboard and tarpaulin to more elaborate shacks such as Chris’ under the Gardiner expressway
- the mean-spirited way city officials and even the police collaborate to remove said structures and belongings
- the vulnerabilities of men and women who are pushed away from safer city hall squares and public spaces because of new by-laws and NIMBY neighbours and police who make it clear people are not wanted in public view
- the crummy motels that municipalities are increasingly forced to use for emergency shelter for families with children because they don’t have enough shelter space and they won’t create spaces
the intolerable and unhealthy shelter conditions that leave people
vulnerable to bedbugs…..to tuberculosis….to emerging viruses like
- the growing hunger and the food shortages in agencies
- the growing hate and discrimination targeted towards homeless people, particularly those with mental health or substance use histories
- the unnecessary and the easily preventable deaths
and while all this is going on, almost half of the $1 billion
dollars from the 2001 Affordable Housing Programme remains unspent, a
significant amount of that in
Then I hope our film would show where our politicians live, where they shop and what they say when they’re asked about these issues. Condoleeza Rice had lots of time for shoe shopping during the Katrina aftermath, and I suspect a Canadian Spike Lee would be able to demonstrate that, in the face of our disaster, most of our political leaders have way too much time and on their hands.
I am very convinced that the public cares about these issues. A recent ‘Raising the Roof’ survey showed that 80% of Canadians believe it is possible to solve homelessness. Somehow that sentiment is not being translated into action at the political level.
Historically, when most progress has been made on the housing front it has been during times of minority governments. The current federal government is redefining its role and we must be vigilant, and we must be clear that we insist they have a role in housing.
So, it is critical that you overcome any
political differences you might have, and find ways to mobilize.
We appreciated the
Politicians hate housing report cards – how have your local politicians done when it comes to money promised, money spent, number of units built and affordability?
November 22 is National Housing Day, the
day the big city mayors’ caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities
endorsed the declaration that homelessness was a national disaster.
We will be holding a car rally, a form of protest that has been used in
the past in
Start today to make housing an election issue.
Here’s a brief snapshot describing the opening of the show’s third season from the CBC website:
and mother are trying to kill each other….there’s a homeless man sleeping in
the park outside your house….you used your children as shoplifting decoys
because you can’t afford to buy clothes…the chickens are spreading
disease…you need a hug…”
This is Wonderland was rich with talent: created by George Walker and starring Cara Pifko as the young criminal lawyer Alice with a cast that included Michael Murphy, Eric Peterson, Jayne Eastwood, Janet Jason Leigh and Michael Riley, to name just a few. The show was recently nominated for 12 genies including best dramatic series and a best actress nomination for Cara Pifko. Earlier this year, the CBC announced it was canceling the show after its third season.
The federal government did not have to cancel our national housing programme in 1993!
The federal government does not have to cancel the SCPI (Supporting Community Partnership Initiatives) program next spring!
It is clear that ‘This Ain’t Wonderland’ for our most vulnerable populations. Especially with the reality of all of the absurdities and the cruelties we are seeing against them. I am asking all of you her today to please, let’s all work together to make housing an issue in the next election, and in every single subsequent election from here on in, until we get our national housing programme back and truly bring about an end to the man-made disaster of homelessness.
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