A national disaster,
a national emergency,
a national disgrace.
Presentation to Poverty and Homelessness Forum
named homelessness a national disaster in this country
years ago! Last week the United Nations called it a national emergency!
1993, the Conservative government quietly cancelled our national housing
program. Following the federal
download of housing to the provinces, and in many cases another download to the
municipalities, in a mere five years we went from a rich history of building
affordable housing in Canada to a dramatic increase in homelessness that
resulted in our Declaration. The
history from that 1998 Declaration until today is a history of significant
political wins on the housing and homelessness front.
Given the current political climate, we have no choice but to keep
building on those wins. Let me
briefly outline some of those wins:
With the October 8th
Declaration, the Toronto Star ran front-page headlines and stories on
homelessness for 11 days straight. They
assigned a journalist – Catherine Dunphy, to cover homelessness full-time –
a first in
State of Emergency Declaration was taken to the United Nations in
Committee is gravely concerned that such a wealthy country as
Two national housing and homelessness
networks were launched.
When Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman invited people from across the country to
hear Dr. Anne Golden present the findings of his Mayor’s Task Force on
Homelessness – Taking Responsibility for Homelessness (aka the Golden
Report) – TDRC, community activists and front-line workers took over city
council chambers and we formed the National Housing and Homelessness Network –
the NHHN. Around the same time, TDRC
also joined with national organizations to form the
National Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.
In 1999 a federal Minister Responsible
for Homelessness was appointed.
Prime Minister Chrétien appointed federal Minister of Labour Claudette
Bradshaw to the new portfolio, Minister Responsible for Homelessness – probably
the first in the world – a federal minister responsible for homelessness.
I should add that Ms. Bradshaw hated being called Minister ‘responsible
for homelessness’ because in fact, the longer she was minister, the more it
remained true. The existence of the
‘Homelessness Minister’ and in particular her national tour, did make
visible the fact that a long list of ministers with responsibilities for
housing, including Diane Marleau, Alfonso Gagliano, David Collenette, John
McCallum, Steve Mahoney, and even Joe Fontana, were never given a mandate or a
budget to restart a national housing program.
In fact, the federal Liberals used to boast that they would never get
back into the housing business.
Disaster Relief monies were announced.
Claudette Bradshaw did announce federal disaster relief monies – the Supporting Community Partnership
Initiatives (SCPI). Hundreds
of millions of dollars were targeted to alleviate homelessness, albeit only in
large urban centres, which perpetuated the myth that homelessness was only a big
city problem. However SCPI did
provide much needed assistance to agencies providing relief to people who were
homeless. As my friend and colleague
Michael Shapcott says “the monies made people more comfortable in their state
of homelessness, but no less homeless.” SCPI
was renewed in 2003 for three years and again for one year. Its future is now in
the hands of this new government.
Affordable Housing Framework Agreement
In 2001, amidst a snowstorm in
these political wins, abundant evidence across the country clearly shows that
the housing shortage has worsened, waiting lists for affordable housing have
lengthened and homelessness has increased. In
addition, the racialization and feminization of poverty has meant that women and
children, African Canadians and First Nations peoples, are today worse off then
they were in 1998.
displaced Canadians, i.e. the homeless, remain economic refugees in their own
country and they should be considered as such.
not call them couch-surfers, or ‘chronics’, street people, hard-core, or
hard-to-house. People who have been
de-housed remain so much longer today than previously, and it is not by choice
or through their personal fault. We
have a serious shortage of affordable housing in this country and it is getting
worse. The longer this is
perpetuated, the more serious the consequences will become.
Hunger is now the primary health problem
that Street Nurses confront. We
refer to this as a major health concern, a medical emergency – or a hotspot.
Hunger is epidemic. The
recent provincial regulation changes to the Special Diet campaign removed the
ability for thousands of people to receive additional food monies to treat that
Inside emergency shelters there are more
children, more seniors, more people with disabilities, more people with chronic
health problems – and now more people requiring palliative care, than there
have ever been before. At least two
Disease, and the potential for disease,
is enormous. Phrases like
‘plagues, scourges, emerging viruses and pests’ may sound like its coming
from another century, but it is the best descriptor of what homeless people are
facing today. Disease onslaughts are
cyclical in nature, but they more frequently erupt when social disasters like
unemployment, overcrowding, hunger and homelessness devastate a community or a
country. For example - shelters have
had to deal with deadly tuberculosis outbreaks.
Shelter workers have had to testify at inquests into the tuberculosis
deaths in their shelters. Cases of
active TB have even been reported among staff in at least one
And there are new and emerging diseases.
And believe me, the worst is yet to come.
Some shelters have had to enact quarantines – when the highly
The term ‘pests’ does not begin to
capture the nightmare of bedbugs. Many
shelters and rooming houses are infested with them throughout
is all just a sampling. I could
describe many similarly horrific rooming house conditions and other issues that
impact people sleeping outdoors.
the last 2 years I have been invited to a number of communities across the
country, to learn from local experts about what their issues are. I have been
startled to learn about the prevalence of 3 problems that I thought were unique
Many municipalities have had to sign
contracts with motels to ensure there are enough emergency shelter spaces in
their community for homeless families with children.
Many of the communities I have visited
also report a high homeless death rate – which should be cause for concern for
public health officials, for epidemiologists, for city officials, and as I’ve
mentioned, for the Chief Coroner of Ontario as well as other regional coroners.
The problem by and large goes ignored and unstudied.
Signs of discrimination.
I thought the vicious NIMBY (not in my back yard) people were only in
are all dangerous developments that threaten human life and dignity and
absolutely, it must be a wake-up call to all of us as activists, front-line
workers and policy makers. We need
to confront what Josephine Grey calls the “willful ignorance” of our
governments to deal with this problem. Josephine
has testified before the UN in
we’ve had 8 years to make a dent in the homelessness disaster. We have had a
few wins over those years, but the situation keeps getting worse, with growing
numbers of people facing desperation and despair.
So, the obvious question is why? It
doesn’t have to be that way.
Ursula Franklin suggests that natural disasters such as the 1985
such a disaster, political and social divisions are put aside and people focus
on providing solutions to the injured and the homeless while at the same time
addressing prevention, which, in the
last week the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
released their report on
62. The Committee reiterates its recommendation that the federal,
provincial and territorial governments address homelessness and inadequate
housing as a national emergency by reinstating or increasing, where necessary,
social housing programmes for those in need, improving and properly enforcing
anti-discrimination legislation in the field of housing, increasing shelter
allowances and social assistance rates to realistic levels, and providing
adequate support services for persons with disabilities. The Committee urges the
State party to implement a national strategy for the reduction of homelessness
that includes measurable goals and timetables, consultation and collaboration
with affected communities, complaints procedures, and transparent accountability
mechanisms, in keeping with Covenant standards.
there has been willful ignorance on the part of our government to deal with this
problem. But it becomes harder for
governments to ignore an issue like homelessness when it stares them in the
face. Governments in
friend and TDRC co-founder, Beric German, told me a story recently:
few decades ago a woman couldn’t afford a hospital birth. She lay on the table
and her husband helped her deliver the baby and cut the umbilical cord with a
knife. When Beric told me this story
it was hard for me to grasp its relevancy. He
went on to explain that we now understand and we know the need for a public
Medicare system. He went on to
remind me that a baby was born to a
1970 Tommy Douglas said, “We need a million new homes in
all know how we got our national health program – Medicare.
The Tommy Douglas story, recently shown on CBC, reminded us that it took
a real fight.
do you know how we got our national housing program?
Surprisingly most people don’t. I didn’t, until recently.
I was a Street Nurse in 1993 when they cancelled the national housing
programme and I was not aware.
me read you something from the CBC archives from a 1946 radio broadcast.
roundup, we brought to you reports about operations carried out by the services.
There was Operation Muskox, Operation Mustard and Operation North. Tonight we
have a new one, something quite different. Muskox took 83 days to reach its
objective, this one took one day. It’s called Operation Kildare.
Don Pringle of the CBC tells you about it from
“The smoke of
the battle has cleared away on Operation Kildare.
Well actually there wasn’t any battle.
The veterans and their families who took over two CWAC (Canadian
Women’s Army Corp) barracks in
telling that piece of history because people in
housing programme was taken from us and we have to get it back.
Liberal government, elected in 1993, was equally bad on their housing policy
during the 1990s. Further cuts were
made to housing funding, most national housing programs were downloaded to the
provinces and territories in 1996, and the role of Canada Mortgage and Housing
Corporation was further eroded in 1998.
just like the sleeping giant, the people have to arise in the face of the
growing despair and desperation around them.
Sooner or later, the Canadian government has to wake up and be forced to
do the right thing and join the rest of the G-8 nations and recreate a national
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