**This is an article I wrote for a non-profit organization I volunteer with, Rock For Humanity and can also be found on their website and blog.**
Last Thursday, May 19, 2011 Rock For Humanity attended the 5th annual June Callwood Lecture hosted by the Toronto Public Library.
June Callwood was a Canadian journalist and activist whose fiery passion to help others inspired and touched the lives of many. After her death in 2007, the Toronto Public Library established a lecture series in her name to honour her work within the community.
One of the women inspired by Callwood is Cathy Crowe; a nurse who took to the streets 30 years ago to help Toronto’s most vulnerable. Crowe is a local activist who has taken on the fight for a national social housing program. In 1998, Crowe co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and declared homelessness a national disaster. Rock For Humanity was drawn in by Crowe’s passion for change 5 years ago and donated the proceeds of one of their shows to the TDRC and its initiatives. Since then, RFH has worked closely with Street Health; another organization Crowe has worked with that provides mental and physical health programs to the homeless and under-housed in Toronto. (Check out our beginners Photoshop skills via the handbill for our concert benefitting the TDRC…embarrassing!)
Cathy Crowe’s lecture titled “The Kitchen is the Heart of the Home” focused on the vulnerable men, women and children who are literally dying for homes while the government cuts funding and social programs designed to help them.
As a public heath nurse, Crowe’s home visits introduced her to men and women living in substandard housing without the basic necessities many of us take for granted. Crowe tells the story of one man who lived in a room that served as his bedroom, kitchen (with only a can opener and one set of utensils) as well as his bathroom (a pail). His weekly grocery list was short: canned salmon and strawberries. Crowe explains that the recent shortage of food at drop-ins, shelters and soup kitchens is just that – recent – and those with medical conditions, allergies or cultural food requirements are forced to eat whatever is available.
Crowe recalls the first Out of the Cold program in 1987 where shelters and church kitchens opened their doors to serve hot, home cooked meals to whoever showed up. While the food supply has declined, the Out of the Cold program continues with about 120 volunteers at each site and a growing number of people needing the service. For the first time since its inception, the program was forced to turn people in need away. The fact that we are still relying on volunteer-run, faith-based programs to provide food and shelter for those in need is astounding and a true reflection that our government does not prioritize the right to shelter or access to food.
Along with the Harris-initiated cuts to housing and social assistance budgets, there have also been rules created that prohibit city-funded agencies from providing food, blankets and supplies to those living on the streets without adequate housing. These rules prohibiting social supports were put in place in an attempt to stop “enabling” the homeless to continue living on the streets, while shelters are over capacity with people, viruses and bedbugs. The controversial Tent City on Toronto’s waterfront was at one point home to over 100 men and women receiving support from outreach agencies like TDRC until these people were forced out of their homes to make way for a Home Depot.
“It used to be that someone dying homeless was an extreme event such as a freezing death … We eventually reached a point when we could no longer keep up with responding to the deaths – there were simply too many.”
The Church of the Holy Trinity now co-hosts a monthly memorial for those who die homeless and serve a lunch for everyone that attends. In one month this year 13 names were added to the memorial and that only counts the names the community has tracked. Obtaining these numbers is hard enough work since neither the Coroner’s office or Public Health track homeless deaths.
In terms of current initiatives, there are 7 affordable housing complex’s being built right now. St. Clare’s at 180 Sudbury Street will have 190 units on completion and will focus on housing families. It’s been sprayed against bedbugs, has a balcony for every apartment, a 24 hour security team and has the option of fully accessible apartments.
Homes like these are relatively rare as of late. The last federal budget did not address housing and the last provincial budget cut funding for affordable housing. Cathy Crowe’s describes the latest fight for housing as a different sort of fight. This fight will be waged in the courtroom. TDRC members have met with legal experts and have filed a Constitutional Charter challenge on the right to housing with the Superior Court of Canada. Updates will be posted to the TDRC website as they happen.
“Today, we continue to need kitchens of relief, the kitchens where loving hands stir soupsand chili to serve those in need…But we also need those same hands to stir the political pot, to make sure we get off this path.”
So what can we do? Sure, it’s easy to sit back and feel helpless while doing nothing. Cathy Crowe suggests funneling donations (of time, energy, or funds) into three distinct efforts: front-line work like volunteering at a soup kitchen, housing efforts (raising awareness or donations) and supporting advocacy (such as writing letters to local politicians and attempting to influence systemic change).