Cathy Crowe


Homing Inn




Alberta’s Housing Drought.

It’s time to open the taps!



Keynote Address: Cathy Crowe


Alberta Housing Coalition Conference

Edmonton, Alberta

November 15, 2004


Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse, Atkinson Economic Justice Fellow

 c/o Sherbourne Health Centre

365 Bloor St. East, Toronto, ON, M4W 3L4



Picture a Refugee Camp


A disaster has occurred.


40,000 people are left homeless.  7,000 are children. There are 2-4 deaths per week.  The camp is overwhelmed, there is no room left. Some people stay with friends or family. Another 1,000 people are forced to sleep outside in the elements year round. Some of them build shanty towns, squats or tent cities to survive. Some use cardboard boxes and other materials for shelter. Some live under bridges or in abandoned buildings. Some sleep on subway grates and get second degree burns from the steam.


For those lucky enough to be inside the camp, the conditions are substandard.  In some parts of the camp, there are only 3 or 4 toilets for 100 people and not everyone has access to a shower. Common areas are filled with mats for sleeping and there are not enough blankets. In many cases the conditions people are forced to live in do not meet the United Nations Standards for Refugee Camps. Violence is rampant, staffing inadequate. There is inadequate cooking facilities and poor air flow.  The tuberculosis infection rate is 4 times higher than the population not affected by the disaster


A TB outbreak occurs in the camp – 15 men are infected with the same strain. Three of the men die. Other infections – diarrhea, colds and flus are the norm. Bedbugs have infested the entire camp. An aboriginal man is found dead in his sleeping bag one morning. Another man is murdered in the camp. Another commits suicide. 200 babies are born. Others remain in the camp so long that a palliative care unit has been set up!


You’ve probably figured out that I am referring to the overall situation in Toronto for displaced persons, de-housed people, commonly known as the “homeless”. This is the picture today and it worsens daily. Tonight, there are between 60 and 80 people sleeping outside Toronto City Hall. Just last week, it was announced that 6 workers at one shelter were infected with tuberculosis. Two have active TB – the same strain as the camp outbreak.


But this disaster also exists on a different scale in most Canadian communities. In Calgary, again only last week, a mysterious outbreak spread through a homeless centre. We now know it was a Norovirus outbreak.  I know that before I leave Edmonton I will be able to describe quite graphic conditions that I will have either seen for myself or learned about from you.  There are men who live night after night in emergency shelters and go to work every day, there are many families homeless, and a high number of First Nations people homeless.


You may wonder, “How can this happen in Canada, with its winter climate and what we were led to believe was a social safety net?” 


Well, as you know, it wasn’t always like this – there was a time when people could find housing, shelter and the support they needed.  All that changed dramatically in the mid 1990s when senior levels of government cut transfer payments, cut social assistance rates, cancelled affordable housing programs and changed tenant protection laws, etc. etc.


Now, I promise I will be more inspiring but I first want to walk you through what we once had and how this mess happened.

·        About two-thirds of Canadians don’t have a particularly serious housing problem. They have enough money that they are able to afford to buy their home, or to rent a decent place and still have enough money left over for food and other necessities. It’s the poorest one-in-three Canadian households that are trapped in the affordable housing crisis and homelessness disaster. Private developers and private landlords aren’t able to provide market-based housing for them. Right after the Second World War, governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels recognized that they had to step in to provide help.

·        In 1973, which was the start of what many housing advocates now call the “golden age of housing in Canada”, the federal government introduced amendments to the National Housing Act with these thrilling words: “Good housing at a reasonable cost is a social right of every citizen of this country. . . This must be our objective, our obligation and our goal.” And the government of the day backed up those brave words with real action: Over the next 20 years, close to half a million units of good quality, affordable housing were built throughout Canada. In fact, I live in a federally-funded housing co-op in downtown Toronto. So, we have a proud history of successful housing programs that provided good homes in great communities to a great many Canadians. 

·        But then, governments at the federal and provincial levels caught the spending cut bug. Starting in the 1980s, and then accelerating in the 1990s, politicians right across the country decided that they had to make massive cuts in spending – including housing spending. Many of those governments also made major tax cuts – and decided to finance those tax cuts with even more spending cuts. In 1993 the federal government cancelled its national housing programme. And in 1996, the federal government transferred most of its existing housing programs to the provinces and territories. This meant that our federal government, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, was no longer helping Canadians to find or maintain housing.

·        In 1995 Ontario’s Conservative government did the same (including 17,000 units in development that would have housed 40,000 people). They also cut welfare rates 21.6 % and made significant changes to the landlord tenant act.

·        In British Columbia, the Campbell government in 2001 cancelled about 1,000 units of affordable social housing that were under development;  in Quebec the 2002 election of the Charest government shifted money from public housing dollars to private sector housing; and Nova Scotia made the biggest cuts in housing spending – from 2000-2002 it cut 50% of its overall housing budget. I could go on and on with similar examples. And Alberta did it too – as you know better than myself.


So, to summarize, our governments took practical and effective action roughly from 1947 to the mid-1980s, then they suddenly and decisively cut spending, downloaded programs and left low and moderate-income Canadians stranded. Prof. Jean Wolfe, of McGill University, one of the leading experts on Canadian housing policy, had this to say:


 “It is only in Canada that the national government has, except for CMHC loans, withdrawn from social housing. The rush to get out of managing existing projects and building new, low-income housing has taken advocates by surprise. It was never imagined that a system that had taken 50 years to build-up could be dismantled so rapidly. Social housing policy in Canada now consists of a checker-board of 12 provincial and territorial policies, and innumerable local policies. It is truly post-modern.”

- Prof. Jean Wolfe, McGill University



I usually spend a lot of time talking about what former Premier Mike Harris did in Ontario but you can be sure we were always watching what was happening in Alberta. Your Mr. Klein appears to have been Mr. Harris’ mentor.


In Alberta, major cuts in provincial housing programs were made, including canceling the seniors’ supportive housing program. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported in 2001 that Alberta made the biggest cuts, in financial terms, on housing programs, among all the provinces and territories since the 1990s.


Alberta’s oil and gas revenues have created a financial windfall for the province. Your government has been able to retire the provincial debt and cut taxes. Yet, housing figures show that Alberta has neglected housing spending – creating a huge housing deficit. People in your cities and towns are feeling the brunt of that and your farmers really have a lot to worry about for their future.


It was very specifically these policy changes in your province, and in mine, that have de-housed people and created an avalanche that has filled our streets, drop-in centres and shelters with people who suddenly found themselves homeless. And those people are still out there. And they are sick and they are dying at an extraordinary rate.


Why should a homeless woman have to say to me when I go to speak to politicians or other community leaders:  “go tell them Cathy, tell them that we are dying”.


The Ice Storm


Now personally, I have to tell you that I love the cold, I love cold Canadian winters but a few years ago, I had a nursing epiphany because of the weather. In 1998 eastern Canada suffered a horrific ice storm that left tens of thousands of people without hydro in a very cold winter. People were forced from their home into emergency makeshift shelters for weeks. After a few days, as you can imagine, people were cranky, getting sick, tired from not sleeping, desperate for their special foods or medications. But you know, everything I witnessed on television depicting the outcome of this natural disaster existed and continues to exist to a hellish degree in the shelters and on the streets in my city.


Yet in 1998 enormous energies went into disaster relief to help people made homeless from an ice storm, and so it should have. But watching the government’s response to the ice storm challenged my conscience deeply.


Our own research illustrated that homelessness easily qualifies as a disaster.  The indicators: a significant number of people affected (250,000 across the country back in the 1980s), a resurgence of old illnesses like tuberculosis, sudden clusters of deaths. The ice storm explained to me, in a very helpful way that homelessness would never be alleviated without a massive government response to the disaster. The kind of response we would expect to see if a chemical spill or train derailment occurred.


So, in 1998, the year of the ice storm, a group of us formed the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and began a campaign declaring homelessness a man-made, national disaster, in a country that had the legal and technical means to end it. We demanded emergency relief monies for our cities and a long term strategy for a national housing program where an additional 1% of government budgets would be allocated for an affordable national housing program. This is an ongoing campaign.

Professor Ursula Franklin suggests that natural disasters such as the 1985 Mexico City earthquakes that killed 10, 000 people, evoke solidarity and tolerance. Political and social divisions are put aside and people focus on providing solutions to the injured and homeless while at the same time addressing prevention. For example, in the Mexico case they looked at improved use of geological knowledge and the role of the subway layout in the amplification of shock waves.

Homelessness in our country, on the other hand, evokes blame, discrimination and stereotypes as an excuse to not do anything. “Get a Job” was Premier Klein’s response to the men living in a shelter, when he made his impromptu visit just before Christmas in 2001 – right here in Edmonton.


If our governments acknowledge homelessness, as a legitimate political earthquake, it could result in an organized tri-level government response. It is not unrealistic to expect that. We have witnessed other landmark Canadian versions of the earthquake, for example floods, and chemical spills. These catastrophes all result in a shelter and rehousing response from the government.


So, how do we move the political logjam, and make housing happen?


This is what people really want to know - are we getting closer to winning a comprehensive national housing and homelessness strategy? Everywhere I go groups are lining up wanting to do housing in their community – just waiting for the funding.


We must remember the movement forward.


It began on October 8, 1998. On that day, the crime was named and the truth was told.


In a downtown Toronto Anglican church, close to 400 people squeezed into standing room only space for a press conference. They listened and the emotion was palpable as the State of Emergency Declaration was read out and homelessness was declared a national disaster. One by one, they lined up to sign the declaration. They were homeless men and women, street youth, nurses, church members, seniors, social agencies, health centres and housing and social activists.


On that day, Ursula Franklin, in her wisdom, reminded us “We have the legal and technical means to end this.”


Today, more and more people are realizing that truth. Bank presidents and economists, mayors, Boards of Trade, Rotary clubs, Anglican dioceses, national unions, teachers’ federations.


Politicians will have no choice but to respond. And, we do see some signs of that.


Remember that shortly after the disaster declaration, Prime Minister Chretien appointed a Minister Responsible for Homelessness? I thought that was such a good title – a Minister Responsible for Homelessness. That was Claudette Bradshaw.  We were probably the only country in the world with a Cabinet minister responsible for homelessness.


Remember the 1999 roll out of the SCPI (Supporting Community Partnership Initiatives) monies? Well, I really call that money ‘disaster relief monies’ that helped to alleviate some of the pressure points around homelessness, it definitely saved lives, but it was not housing money. 


Remember in 2001 the federal government signed a federal-provincial-territorial housing agreement in Quebec City, and slowly some of the provinces signed on?


Most recently, Prime Minister Martin appointed a full-fledged Minister of Housing. Prior to this, housing was an add-on to other ministerial duties such as transportation, environment and public works. The new minister is Joe Fontana.


The Prime Minister has joined the federal government’s homelessness programs with the federal housing programs, indicating that he is at least making the link.


In the last federal election, the Liberals promised $1.5 billion over the next five years, on top of the $1 billion over five years they had promised earlier. We have just learned that there will be a federal-provincial housing ministers’ meeting on November 30 in Ottawa and national housing groups will be there – on the inside and on the outside.


Remember the 2002 Tent City eviction? They were the largest group of homeless people engaging in civil disobedience since the depression and they won, big time – a historic rent supplement program that has proven that homeless people want housing. And this victory and its’ political significance as a poor peoples’ win will go down in history.


So what you can do here in Alberta?








Alberta and Ontario have a lot in common.


Ø      Decent people that can no longer keep, let alone find affordable housing;

Ø      Families in shelters, and these are families with children;

Ø      People trying to survive on a crummy disability allowance or welfare allowance;

Ø      And people who are already suffering enough who also have to face the brunt of discriminatory comments by erratic political leaders who suggest they “should just go and get a job”, or that “they don’t look like they are disabled”, or that they are “bums” or “lazy”.


We’ve barely survived a decade of housing drought. Some people haven’t. It’s time now to open the taps.


We are the “have” provinces and together we must push our provinces to be lead  players in building safe and affordable housing across the country. So I urge you to be loud and to be persistent and to do what one of my good friends says which is to create a wind, a wind that will build momentum, passion and excitement.


I’m so looking forward to spending more time here, meeting with you and learning more about your issues and your needs.


Thank you.




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