Cathy Crowe, a long-time “Street Nurse” who works in the area of social justice nursing, presented some important and timely issues in an Academy Winter forum at Tartu College. Her background in nursing homeless people, as well as advocacy, writing, and filmmaking, have provided her with significant insights which she shared in a very visual presentation.
Homelessness is indeed a crisis in Canada, one which governments need to address much more aggressively. Cathy said that 8 million people in Canada are in a “precarious” position with respect to housing and 235,000 people are actually on the streets. She felt homelessness deserved to be considered a “national disaster”, given not just the deaths due to extreme cold or heat of street people, but also the quality of life of people forced to live in cardboard boxes or ravine tents or on top of subway grates.
One significant quote was that “homelessness is de-housing”. Cathy suggested that Canadian governments have not just ignored the plight of the homeless, but also have acted to disadvantage them even further. Two significant social welfare programs came into being after World War II: Medicare and a National Housing Program. The housing program lasted from 1945–1993 with 20,000 units built per year. Calculation would suggest that, at that rate, the 30 years since have resulted in a deficit of 600,000 affordable houses.
Homelessness can occur as a consequence of economics, personal or natural disasters, war or strife, and systemic policies. Systemic policies that affect homeless people include cancelled programs, closed shelters, laws that criminalize street people’s activities, defunding of emergency supplies, and replacement of publicly-funded programs with charity. Toronto mayors have been complicit in all of these policies.
Cathy identified a number of “hotspots” in the plight of the homeless: insufficient city shelters and respite sites with poor conditions (people crammed together with inadequate personal protection), destruction of encampments and informal shelters, disease (including TB, Strep A, bedbugs, and influenza), insufficient provision for families and children, hate and discrimination (resulting in abuse and even murders), and deaths among the homeless (lately 12–15 per month in Toronto).
She suggested that homelessness during the early days of COVID became a “social X-ray” highlighting the inequities in the system. Public services shut down but the homeless were still on the street, libraries where they could get warm or use telephones were closed, proper masks were unavailable, and people in shelters were given bunk beds with minimal separation.
What can we do? Cathy suggested a three-pronged approach from members of the public: donation to agencies that help people directly on the street, donation to organisations “upstream” that try to influence government policy, and advocacy in the form of letters, phone calls and emails to city councillors, MPPs and MPs. One specific current issue is the fight to keep warming stations open.
The discussion after Cathy’s presentation covered a number of issues: the role of advocacy, the possibilities for “little” housing as a partial solution, whether there should be a legal right to shelter in Canada, and how the social system needs to deal with the fraction of the homeless with mental health issues.
There are perhaps 30–40 “street nurses” in Toronto, all of whom are acting as volunteers and have other jobs to support them. Cathy herself has actively treated people in need of care but also has been a strong advocate dealing with the underlying issues. Her activism has taken many forms: marches, inquiries, direct action, blogs and website information. She showed some disturbing “secret camera” pictures within shelters, secret because photography and videography is generally banned.
As a rich source of further information, Cathy made reference to three books that she has authored or edited: Dying for a Home: Homeless Advocates Speak Out, Displacement City: Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic, and A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse. In addition, much of this powerful presentation and considerably more information, images, and videos can be found on Cathy’s website, www.cathycrowe.ca.