On November 23, Gaetan Heroux announced that he would not be moving from his office at Street Health and would continue to work there as he has for the last ten years. A few days later, he received a directive from Neighbourhood Link (Heroux’s employer) saying that his files and computer would be moved on Friday, December 4 to their office at Victoria Park and Danforth in Scarborough.

Neighbourhood Link also told Heroux that if he didn’t report for work on Monday, December 7 at the Danforth office, he’d be fired. On Monday morning, Heroux reported to work at Street Health, set up a desk and a chair outside near the sidewalk and handed out a letter to community members explaining his situation.

On Wednesday, Heroux received a letter from his union informing him that he’d been fired by Neighbourhood Link. He claimed that Neighbourhood Link didn’t put a plan in place, so people won’t be able to apply immediately for ID at two downtown shelters and two drop-in centres where he ran clinics on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“They have to hire somebody, they have to train somebody,” said Heroux on Thursday morning. “It could be the beginning or mid January before those clinics are up and running again.”

The night before, a community meeting was held so people could hear directly from homeless people and their allies about the crisis at Street Health. Over 100 people showed up at the meeting, including four or five board members from Street Health. They heard about what it meant to have the Hep C program cut, what it meant to have experienced staff resign or driven out and what it meant to lose Gaetan Heroux.

“That was very significant that they were there to hear those concerns,” he said.

Another demonstration has been planned for Tuesday, December 15 outside Street Health. Heroux claimed that Street Health has allegedly applied to the Ministry of Labour for a “no board” to pressure workers into accepting a first collective agreement. 

According to the Ministry of Labour, a ministry conciliation officer must be appointed at the request of one of the parties before the union can be in a position to engage in a legal strike or Street Health can be in a legal position to lock-out employees in the bargaining unit. The parties are not legally allowed to commence a strike or a lock-out until after they have met with a conciliator and the conciliator has issued a “no board” report.

Seventeen days after the date of the “no board” report, the union is legally allowed to strike and Street Health is legally allowed to lock-out employees in the bargaining unit.

Bargaining between Street Health and the union is scheduled to take place on December 16 and December 17.

“It’s important for the employees to have support because it’s a really, really tough work environment,” said Heroux, “because of the tension and division that’s been allowed to fester over the last while.”

Some employees have allegedly attempted to get the board at Street Health to react and for management to change its ways, but to no avail. New employees have allegedly tried to decertify the union; others wondered “what they kind of a workplace they just walked into.” The plan is to allegedly drive the pro-union staff out of the agency as a means of shutting down the union.

Since Monday, Heroux has been outside Street Health, arriving at 9 am and leaving at 5 pm. He wears four layers of clothing under a worn winter jacket, boots, a hoody and a toque. He’s talked to people he’s known for years about his own personal situation as well as that of Street Health. Support from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), has allowed Heroux some respite from the frigid temperatures and pounding rain.

On Wednesday, Heroux collected 140 signatures on a petition demanding Street Health bargain in good faith and that he be allowed to return to his office at the agency.

“I need to talk to people in tell them why I’m not at work,” said Heroux. “I’m telling them why I can’t move and everyone understands that the move is nonsense.” Except his employer and Street Health who have allegedly said they will not reverse their decision.

Heroux still can’t understand why homeless and poor people would be made to trek half way across the city to access a service they’ve had in their neighbourhood for ten years when the community allegedly wants Heroux and his office at Dundas and Sherbourne.

Six weeks ago, Heroux spoke out for the first time about the allegedly deteriorating conditions at Street Health, when he and several of his colleagues wrote a letter of support for the unionized staff at the agency. “I should have said something much, much earlier,” said Heroux. “But slowly that support is starting to build.”

Heroux stressed the importance of a grassroots struggle for the heart of the agency. There are still some workers at Street Health with a long history who have managed to hang in. Ex-employees have joined the fight too.

It’s an important battle, said Heroux, because the whole neighbourhood is undergoing significant change. Without a strong, unified voice from Street Health, the homeless and the poor won’t stand a chance. No one will be there to respond to the changes.

But what about Heroux’s future?

He thinks there’s an agency close by that has offered space for the ID Project. If so, Heroux said he’ll approach Neighbourhood Link about rehiring him to work out of that office. “If they reject that then we know what it’s about,” he said. “They’ve made it personal.”

With the support of the OCAP and others, Heroux hasn’t had to endure “eight hour marathons” standing outdoors in -20 wind chills with 45 km/hour winds. He’s able to get inside briefly to warm up, eat lunch and grab a coffee now and again. On Wednesday, Heroux and two supporters were soaked to the skin when close to 30mm of rain fell in Toronto.

After the rains subsided, they used the coin laundry across the street to dry their clothes, before heading back to their “workstation” to resume talking to community residents.

In the last two weeks, the neighbourhood has been postered with signs asking people to fight for Gaetan and fight for the service he provides. Everyone knows what’s happening. The internal struggle at Street Health that’s allegedly been going for over two years has now become a public issue. That’s helped boost staff morale.

Even one of the waitresses from the restaurant down the street regularly brings Heroux toast and coffee as a show of respect and support.

Brian DuBourdieu has known Gaetan Heroux for over 10 years. Seated on a chair leaning back against a wrought iron fence decorated with OCAP flags and signs, he noted that clients have noticed the low staff morale too.

“Clients are frustrated because their workers are stressed out,” he said. “Then you lose good people and that hurts the community more.”

DuBourdieu remembers a time when Street Health put the interests of the community above its own, when dirt on the hardwood floors of the agency weren’t a major issue, when the homeless and poor were the priority.

At Wednesday’s meeting at the John Innes Community Centre, he spoke to Street Health board members, some of whom were sympathetic to the situation. But if nothing changes, he said there could be some major shifts after next year’s Annual General Meeting.

In the meantime, Street Health continues to operate as if all is well. There are signs plastered across the inside of the two front windows of the Street Health building facing outwards. One says Street Health is Open. We are here to serve the Community. The other says Street Health: 23 Years of Commitment to the Community.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.