Fighting homelessness with disaster relief housing

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Image: Toronto Disaster Relief Committee

In 1998, we in Toronto had to name homelessness a disaster.

Rodale's The Synonym Finder spells out the nature of a disaster; "catastrophe, calamity, tragedy, flood, deluge, quake, typhoon, tsunami, hardship, adversity, hurt, ruin, desolation, trouble and strife, collapse, breakdown." 

Like many other Canadians, I have given a donation at one time or another to a tsunami relief group, the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, or Canadian Medical Assistance Teams (CMAT). Canada has seen its share of natural and man-made disasters: the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1958 Springhill mining disaster, the 1987 Edmonton tornado, the 1950 and 1997 Manitoba floods, the 1998 Canadian ice storm, and the more recent and prevalent floods, fires, and ice storms across Canada.

Then there is the homelessness disaster.

In January 1998, I was glued to the television, watching the gruelling ice storm in Quebec and Eastern Ontario. I seriously contemplated going to help; the emergency shelter conditions and health needs I saw on the TV news coverage were so dire that they reflected what I was doing in Toronto. As soon as I made the decision to go, I was hit with a wave of emotion -- my gut told me something was seriously wrong. I realized that to go was to deny that homeless people here, in Toronto, were also living in a disaster. A disaster that had no natural cause. I was overcome with grief and nausea as I realized that all the signs of an acute disaster (like the ice storm farther east) were present; a rapid rise in people de-housed, worsening health, increased infections, suffering and exhaustion.

But for homeless people, the power and heat were not going to suddenly turn back on. Conditions were not going to inevitably improve, freeing them to return home. Their emergency shelter stay was not short-term. There would be no compensation plan to reimburse them for their loss, no emergency re-housing plan either.

I call homelessness a social welfare disaster. Ursula Franklin, an internationally known physicist, educator and activist called it a "man-made disaster." The World Health Organization refers to a disaster as an occurrence that causes such significant damage, loss of life, deterioration of health, and demand on health services that an extraordinary response is required from outside the affected community.

I watched politicians use just about any word other than disaster to describe the growing homelessness in their communities. In the spring of 1998, the City of Toronto’s homeless advisory committee, which advises city council, asked that the city be declared a federal disaster area because it could not treat or shelter the growing number of homeless people. The motion was shuffled to another committee and ultimately ignored.

In response, some proponents of this motion, myself included, came together and formed the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. We asked that the disaster of homelessness be dealt with in the same manner and spirit as floods and ice storms. We called for emergency disaster relief funds and for a long-term strategy for a national housing program where an additional one per cent of government budgets would be allocated.

The first part of the request was met; the second remains outstanding two decades later. By now, it's no surprise to you that in these decades as a street nurse I have seen some horrific situations. Often it has made me despair. No matter where I turned, the terrible things I witnessed came back to the same fundamental thing: the lack of sufficient shelter in the face of a never-ending storm. The lack of a home for each person.

Around 1997-1998, we began to see more squats in the city. One of the most notable shelter squats in the city in the late '90s was in one of the empty silos at the foot of Parliament Street at Lake Ontario.

The building was dangerous, wet and contaminated with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. These are industrial products or chemicals that are extremely hazardous to human health. They had been illegally dumped there. This particular encampment was very young -- populated mostly by people in their teens and early 20s. It was called Rooster Squat, after the large rooster painting on the exterior. I’ll never forget the day I visited with another outreach worker to find one of the teen girls pregnant and covered in chickenpox, head to toe.

Another encampment, Tent City, was a squatter's camp on Toronto's waterfront, on land owned by Home Depot -- perhaps one of the most expensive pieces of property in the country. Early on, a handful of people asked for the help of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) to prevent their eviction. The number of residents grew to 140 over a three-year period. Toronto's Tent City turned out to be the largest and longest act of civil disobedience by homeless people since the depression of the 1930s. Many of the men and women living there were labourers: drywallers, roofers, and steelworkers. Several had built some of Toronto’s mega projects like the SkyDome, some had worked in social services. There were couples, and there were people with disabilities.

TDRC worked almost daily with and at Tent City to provide disaster relief. The aid we helped to coordinate included portable toilets, insulation, woodstoves for heat and cooking, propane and generators, camping shower bags, food supply and delivery and health care.

In fact, we literally brought in disaster relief, in the form of disaster housing -- pre-fab homes made by a company called DuraKit Shelters, which makes homes often shipped to other countries that have experienced a natural disaster such as an earthquake. We also experimented; working with architectsAlliance's John van Nostrand and some of the Tent City residents to build a Pro-Home house that John had designed, which included a composting toilet and shower. We had regular community planning meetings, usually with a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

By the third year, there were over 50 houses (no one was left in a tent), approximately 140 people, a dozen dogs and cats. There had been a birth (in hospital), several deaths, even the building of a place of worship -- although it had a short life; it was blown down in a storm.

Tent cities around the world have shown the strength of the human spirit for survival. In the case of Toronto’s Tent City, residents tied their fight to the national fight for housing (the entire struggle has been chronicled in Michael Connolly’s superb film Shelter from the Storm). Their brutal eviction twinned with their activism culminated in a pilot rent supplement program that for many was a happier ending than being forced back into the shelter system. The same cannot be said for the thousands of homeless in Toronto and Canada since -- many of whom have built their own tent cities across the country.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues. Her work has included taking the pulse of health issues affecting homeless people including shelter conditions and inadequate housing, the return of tuberculosis and bedbugs, discrimination and a high mortality rate. She has fostered numerous coalitions and advocacy initiatives that have achieved significant public policy victories. This article is excerpted with permission from Cathy's memoir A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse, which will launch in Toronto on August 27 at Eastminster United Church (310 Danforth Avenue). For information can be found here.

Image: Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.

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