Homeless share their stories and their dreams

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Dri, a former resident of Toronto’s Tent City, is a homeless “warrior” who worries that “we’ll soon forget that shelters are really meant for emergencies.”

“Housing is a human right”. So says Cathy Crowe, author of Dying for a Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out.

Ms. Crowe is a street nurse and homeless activist who has worked with Toronto’s homeless population for the past 18 years. She also co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee in 1998, which declared homelessness in Canada a national disaster. Most recently she received the Atkinson Charitable Foundation Economic Justice Award, and works from a base at Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto.

Ms. Crowe had an epiphany while watching the reports on television of the ice storm disaster of January 1998. She describes quite poignantly how she decided to take a leave from her job as a street nurse to go and help out with the disaster. The light dawned: “I realized that the images on television that had moved me were the daily, hellish circumstances of homeless people’s lives … Homelessness is a man-made disaster.” What Ms. Crowe also realized was that people did not respond to the homelessness disaster in the same way they do to a natural disaster.

Dying for a Home is an anthology of the stories of 10 (11 including Ms. Crowe) homeless activists many of whom resided in Tent City – a squat on the Toronto waterfront from 1998 to 2002. Tent City existed for almost five years and at its peak there were almost 100 people living there.

The contributors to this anthology talk about their lives and the trajectory that brought them to Toronto and then homelessness. They also share their hopes and dreams of having a home and the frustration they feel with governments that remain blind to their plight.

Ms. Crowe’s writing is gripping; she opens the book with a shocking description of what sounds like a refugee camp but what ends up being a description of the situation for people who are homeless here in Canada.

Since three of the 10 contributors had died by the time the book was being put together, she had a strong hand in telling their stories as well.

Each story is unique – from Melvin Tipping who testified at a 1996  inquest that the freezing deaths of three homeless men were a result of being homeless, to Dri, described as a “high profile warrior,” who secretly filmed a day in the life of a shelter and ended up shaming Toronto into bringing up shelter standards “… to better reflect UN standards for refugee camps.”

The contributors – men, women, couples – describe how things have worsened in Ontario since the mid-’90s when Premier Mike Harris was elected. Bonnie Briggs states, “The government must get back into housing. They took us out, they can put us back into it.” Dri worries “that we’ll soon forget that shelters are really meant for emergencies.” Nancy Baker laments the criminalizing of homelessness: “I got a ticket recently for ‘encovering the sidewalk’ – for taking too much space on the sidewalk.”

[pullquote]Reading this book will expose you to living conditions that should be unthinkable in a rich country like Canada. You will also be inspired by the humanity, courage and dignity of the people you will meet who have had to cope with and survive these conditions.

Their stories are similar to the people I meet every day in my work who have had similar experiences. Another book comes to mind, Pat Capponi’s 1992 book, Upstairs at the Crazy House. These two books are cut from the same cloth. What is shocking is that after 13 years the situation hasn’t improved at all. In fact it has worsened.

Ms. Crowe has encouraged her fellow activists to tell their stories of homelessness to create a “wind to make things happen,” and hopefully move people to anger and then to action.

Mary-Martha Hale is executive director of the Anglican Social Services-Centre 454 in the diocese of Ottawa. She is also the chair of the Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa. She recently received the 2007 Defender of the Public Good Award from the Social Planning Council for Ottawa.

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Mary-Martha Hale , reviewer

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