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Spring is like a global refresh button, unless you are homeless.

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Spring brings the promise of warmth, more sunlight, new growth and new projects or ideas. We may witness or take part in religious and spiritual celebrations of life and renewal. Spring can be like a global refresh button.

Yet this weekend I will be watching the dark post-apocalyptic movie The Road, directed by John Hillcoat and based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Why you ask? Well, to help me dig deeper psychologically into a chapter I am writing for my nursing memoirs. In this chapter I am trying to describe the disastrous street-level health impact that I witnessed from neo-liberal policies that cut spending to social programs such as affordable housing, shelters and social assistance. This included clusters of homeless deaths, a tuberculosis outbreak that killed a number of homeless men, hunger and a shocking rise in homeless families with children.

As the House of Commons debates Canada’s extension and escalation of its military mission fighting ISIS, I am again reminded of the biblical story of the Four Horsemen, usually characterized as War, Famine, Plague or Pestilence and Death.

From my memoir: “In many cultures there are legends about pestilence. In Russia it was the Pest Maiden who carried disease throughout villages causing peasants to fall dead before her. After a visit from the Pest Maiden, funeral processions clogged the streets. Occasionally a peasant would fight the Pest Maiden off and she would go into the forest to wait for another day and another opportunity to attack. Andrew Nikiforuk uses imagery like this in his book The Fourth Horseman. A short history of plagues, scourges and emerging viruses to describe the outcomes when social disasters like overcrowding, hunger and homelessness devastate a country. He describes the Fourth Horseman as one of the riders of the Apocalypse, who is both pestilence and death, riding into our lives with epidemics, pandemics and death.”

This week in Toronto the Fourth Horseman rode in again. We learned that the 124-bed Salvation Army Hope shelter has been forced to close on March 31. We witnessed the seasonal spring closures of the volunteer Out of the Cold program, resulting in the loss of 512 emergency mat spaces this week alone with more closures to come next week. The measles outbreak in the city may be declared over but disease outbreaks continue, mostly unnoticed and unreported because of whom they affect. Toronto’s largest homeless shelter was forced to shut its doors to new admissions for a period of time as it struggled with an enteric outbreak that affected 32 residents and 21 staff. (Enteric disease: read diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, and other symptoms.) To make matters worse, at the same shelter, a respiratory outbreak struck with at least six cases of pneumonia. Wet blankets and sleeping bags can be seen everywhere on downtown streets. We will only see more forced outdoor sleeping, that is, until the Pan Am Games bring the predicted police attention and ticketing of homeless people who are living, sleeping or panhandling in the downtown core. Reports of homeless deaths are on the rise across the city, not tracked by any official body and without doubt we will be adding more names at Toronto’s April Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

As a Street Nurse, I know that disease will always be with us but I also know that our medical system, our psychiatric system, our pharmaceutical industry will not produce the real changes needed in people’s lives. The Conservative government’s determination to spend more on war instead of solid social programs embodies the Fourth Horseman both at home and abroad. I also know that, like the peasant in the legend, together we can fight off the pest maiden who undoubtedly is casting her eye on your community. A federal government committed to housing not war would be a good start.

Photo: Cathy Crowe



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