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The housing lessons from Rainer 'Dri' Driemeyer and Tent City

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Dri giving a speech at a CAW (now UNIFOR) meeting in front of a banner that says "House the Homeless. Toronto Disaster Relief Committee." Image: Cathy Crowe

We lost an important figure in Canadian housing history this week.

Dri, (pronounced "dry") an original member of the three-year Tent City homeless encampment on Toronto's waterfront, died this week. He was 70.

Dri was many things: an artist, poet, cement mason and builder of the Skydome, prospector, explosives expert, welder, certified radiation worker and high-profile, homeless warrior fighting for housing.

Long-time housing advocate Beric German points out that Dri had already been on the waterfront site for a long time when we at Toronto Disaster Relief Committee began to give a hand:

"He was one of the mainstays, vital in terms of continuity of the fightback. He was always there and participated publicly and privately in different ways so that the positive outcomes around housing were visible to all. He demonstrated that the world that we all live in should include housing."

Dri spoke of his activism to me for my book Dying for a Home. Homeless Activists Speak Out

"Over the years, I’ve done a lot of media, from many angles. I shot the secret video of the shelter conditions for the Shelley Saywell film Street Nurse. Can you imagine if I'd been caught? I would have been in trouble, but the images had to be captured on film. It was so bad in there. The next day it was on the front page of the Toronto Star. In my new place (apartment) I've done a few TV interviews. I do a lot of public speaking now to journalism students, to nursing and social work students, at high schools. They get it. I think they get it better than their teachers. I think I've done some great speeches.

I've just joined the Steering Committee for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. I felt quite honoured to be asked.

I presented to the Ontario pre-budget committee recently at the InterContinental Hotel with Michael Shapcott. When we finished, I told them to sign the cheque. I'll speak anywhere, anytime. I may not be great, but probably whatever I do, I won't be half-bad. I can make my point in one minute."

Case in point: Dri's 22-word speech in a blizzard outside the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Quebec City in 2001.

"We are all we. We need to convince the other we that we need help. We need housing. We need housing. Merci!"

It is thanks to a TV news story by Adam Vaughan on Dri at Tent City that he got reconnected with his family -- both parents and his son and daughter.

It speaks to Dri's impact that this statement by now MP Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York) was read in the House of Commons this week:

"Mr. Speaker, there is a picture that hangs in my Ottawa office. It is of a friend, a man called Dri. Dri is short for Rainer Karl-August Drimeyer. I first met Dri in the mid-'90s. He lived in a tent on Lake Ontario in Toronto. When I met Dri, he had turned his back on the world. He found himself a quiet place to look at the stars, have a little drink and write some cosmic poetry by a fire. Eventually, other homeless people, new tents, then activists and politicians would gather around the fire he started. Tent city was born and Dri was its mayor. Tent city was eventually cleared. The residents were given housing, but Dri was Dri, and he chose to pitch a tent and sleep in that tent because he said it just felt right. Dri was one of a kind and he passed away this week. He was a reluctant activist, but not only did he remain housed for the rest of his life, he also never stopped fighting to make sure other people were housed as well. We lost a good soul this week. His fight is our fight, and that fight continues to end homelessness in Canada."

Dri considered himself a political activist but told fellow advocate John Andras that reconnecting with his family, and re-establishing those relationships was his proudest achievement. In Dying for a Home he told me:

"I've had quite an eventful year. I had promised Oma and Opa that I would spend Christmas with the whole family in Waterloo. So, having made that promise, and committed myself, I went there for Christmas with my ex and the kids and we all had Christmas dinner together. It went as well as I'd expected it to; it went really well actually. I don't hide any of the Tent City stuff from them. Basically, poverty and homelessness isn't something you should be embarrassed about."

That's what a home can do.

In 2002, approximately 140 Tent City residents were brutally evicted with no notice, with bulldozers flattening their dwellings, leaving no time to retrieve their belongings. The Tent City story is chronicled in the documentary Shelter from the Storm by Michael Connolly.

At the time of this eviction, similar to today, city officials and Toronto mayor Mel Lastman insisted there were enough shelter beds for all the Tent City residents to go to.

There were no shelter beds. So, we immediately protested, at the site, then we stormed city council chambers and the downtown Holiday Inn where Home Depot, which owned the land, attempted to hold a press conference. That night, an entirely new shelter was forced to open but more importantly, within days, housing was won.

A historic level of advocacy resulted in Tent City residents winning housing through a rent supplement pilot program that continues to this day. Dri lived in the same apartment, in the Parkdale community of Toronto, that he was housed in 18 years ago thanks to that program.

Today, we witness the same inaccuracies in Toronto about the availability of shelter beds and similarly brutal and coercive evictions where people in encampments are barely given notice, and are told they have to go to the new respite centre where they will be given shelter in plexiglass cubicles.

Governments need to learn the encampment lesson from Tent City and from Dri. The solution is housing.

Rest in Power Dri.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: Cathy Crowe

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