For over 20 years, Gaetan Heroux has worked with homeless and poor people at Dundas and Sherbourne in Toronto’s downtown east end. But the much loved anti-poverty activist now faces forced relocation after he and fellow ID workers wrote a letter of support for the unionized staff at Street Health,a non-profit community-based agency providing physical and mental health programs to homeless and underhoused individuals.
Since workers at the agency joined CUPE Local 4308 in April 2008, Street Health management has allegedly “delayed bargaining a first collective agreement, has created an atmosphere of intimidation towards those who signed union cards, and overseen a recent failed attempt to decertify the union by staff members who have management's open and visible support,” said the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in a written release.
(Since March 2009, Street Health has lost over 50 years - at least 12 staff members - of experience and connection with the community it serves.)
“In particular, we are shocked at the most recent reprisal against one of OCAP's own members, for supporting his peers at Street Health in their efforts to unionize,” said OCAP. “Several days after Gaetan and his co-workers at the PAID ID Project (a Neighbourhood Link agency program that has a worker operating out of Street Health - Gaetan) sent a letter supporting the unionized workers to the Street Health Board of Directors, Gaetan was informed that he would be forced to relocate to Scarborough.”
At a rally Monday outside Street Health’s office on Dundas just east of Sherbourne, OCAPer Mac Scott asked, “Why is Street Health so scared of unionization that they’re moving out a supporter of the union?” Scott said the union will come to Street Health whether they like it or not and it will lose the battle to push Heroux out of the neighbourhood.
“We will make sure that you are one more in a list of failed attempts to get Gaetan out of the community that he’s been organizing,” said Scott.
In a story he wrote for the April 2000 OCAP newsletter, Heroux said, “I have often thought that my life would have been much different had there been an organization like OCAP when my family first came to Ontario."
In the fall of 1965, Heroux’s parents, hoping to escape poverty in Quebec, packed their five kids in an old Ford and drove to Ontario, settling in a suburb a half hour west of Toronto. “My father hoped to find work at Ford's, but he was turned down. He found some work on various construction sites. He injured himself while working on one of the sites and had daily battles with Worker's Compensation. When my father got hurt, my mother began to clean rich people's houses to help pay the rent.”
Two years later, after his father had a nervous breakdown and attempted to kill himself, Heroux’s family finally obtained social housing. “Life in the project was chaotic,” he said.
“My father was in and out of psych wards. This meant that we often had to rely on welfare for support. Welfare barely gave my parents enough to live on. Every day I watched the stress build as my parents struggled to make ends meet. This environment made it impossible for us to live normal lives. Some of the people I knew in the project lived their whole lives in poverty, and the realities of living in poverty were very harsh.”
In 1980, Heroux moved to Toronto with his wife and for the last 20 years has worked for social service agencies in the downtown east end of the city. By 2000, he’d seen conditions in the hostels and drop-ins deteriorate as the homeless population increased. When Harris came to power in 1995, Heroux said many agencies refused to openly condemn the cuts to welfare, social housing and the new workfare program that required welfare recipients to work for their social assistance payments.
But Heroux refused to remain silent.
When several residents’ associations tried to shut down a day shelter where he worked, Heroux attended a protest but was fired the next day. “More than 200 people, many of them homeless men and women who had used the drop-in, marched on the streets protesting the actions of the residents,” said Heroux.
It was warm, sunny day for Monday’s rally in front of Street Health, where 60 people gathered in support of Heroux who’s helped this neighbourhood and this community for almost three decades. “He’s sticking up for poverty and the homeless people to try and get them off the streets,” said the Colonel, who was born in Prince Edward Island but moved to Toronto in 1989. “They shouldn’t move him out of the neighbourhood because this is Gaetan’s neighbourhood.”
CUPE VP David Kidd, a founding member of Street Health who’s known Heroux for 30 years, said: “One of the best things we ever did in Street Health was to hire Gaetan Heroux. That gave Street Health street cred and instant credibility among those trying to deal with the issues of homelessness. Gaetan has worked tirelessly 24/7, 365 days a year for the people on the street. He has always been there for people.”
Even though people may become homeless in the suburbs, eventually they end up in the downtown core trapped in shelters and on the streets. “To move an administration office to deal with the issues of the people of the street is heartless and isn’t addressing the community needs,” said Kidd. “Gatetan needs to be working in this community in order to serve homeless peoples’ needs. Street Health should change their decision and move him back here.”
Kidd also suggested that management stop the Board’s obstruction to the unionization of Street Health workers, who need a union to stand up for their entitlements and deal with the staff morale issue. “I don’t know how Street Health can hold its head high, even apply for any other grants if they don’t allow unionization to take place,” he said.
As the rally wrapped up, Heroux’s supporters hoped their message didn’t fall on deaf ears, that they don’t have to return. But if they do, it will be in greater numbers, ensuring that Heroux remains in the neighbourhood along with the ID Project and the union.
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