October 16, 2006 - Winnipeg.
From Katrina to
you for inviting me back to
I was here last on
you may recall, 1997 could have been a really tough year for this City when it
was hit with the "Flood of the Century" and just weeks earlier, on
April 5th to the 8th, the so-called “Blizzard of the
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.”
the examples of both
In order to make my point clear, it is probably best that I start with a bit of a history lesson. I want to talk about what seems to be this country’s forgotten legacy, our National Housing Programme, but I will begin by putting things into historical context by talking a little bit about my grandfather’s story, something my mother reminded me about recently.
My grandfather was away during the Second World War for over 5 years while my grandmother raised four children. He 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 CAW 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
Before he died at 96 years 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.
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. I’m sure that he would be astonished that so many continue to have so little, and that there are so few in power that really seem to care.
One of the social benefits achieved after the war, that he saw us losing was our national housing programme. Most people know the Tommy Douglas story, how we achieved our Medicare programme, but I have learned in my travels across this country, that not many know the history of how we got our national housing programme.
During World War II, the Wartime Housing Corporation built 46,000 units, mostly for war-workers and they also helped repair and modernize thousands of existing units. But, when the war ended, more than a million Canadians in the armed forces were ready to return to peacetime life, creating a housing demand that was unprecedented.
From the end of World War 2 until 1993 – our national housing program built 650,000 units of affordable housing, housing 2 million Canadians to this day. That is our legacy.
So, what went so terribly wrong?
In 1998, 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 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 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
On October 8, 1998
we held a press conference and declared homelessness a National Disaster. What
we saw was not unique to
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
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. Homelessness in
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.
As my good friend and colleague Michael Shapcott says, people were made a little more comfortable but they were still homeless.
That program, as you may know has been recently threatened and is due to be shut down, or ‘sunsetted’ in March 2007.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my
talk, as disasters go, Katrina and homelessness in
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
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.” (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc)
“Hope is not
a job.” (graffiti)
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
·65,000 are youth
·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
The sudden and recent scare over loss of SCPI monies for this fiscal year meant that we raged across the country and we won the money back.Yet, today, we are still fighting for the program to continue after March 31, 2007.
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.When I was
I want to illustrate these points with a recent example of how desperate the fight is for the most basic life-saving programmes.
During this summer’s heat wave, I
pleaded with the City of
In addition, Michael Shapcott articulated the need for longer-term solutions, like 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
in a Toronto
election year except decide to dump our garbage near
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 included people living in poverty - the frail elderly, persons experiencing serious mental health or other health challenges, people on psychiatric medications, people living in isolation, with mobility issues, under-housed and homeless.
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. We need to figure out how we
can provide the relief people need. Project
Elder Cool in
Do we really 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’ who lived under
-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 Ontario
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 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 efforts made to join us in
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
first endorsed the 1998 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
Please, I ask that you start today, to make housing an election issue.
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