You can no more drive Gaetan out of Dundas and Sherbourne then you can tell the Pope that he can’t be in the Vatican, said anti-poverty activist John Clarke, as he addressed a group of supporters Monday during a rally outside Street Health.

In early December, Gaetan Heroux is slated to move his administrative office inside the offices of Neighbourhood Link (his employer) at Danforth and Victoria Park Avenue.

But Heroux said he won’t go.

“You would think that this agency would be doing everything in its power to ensure that his role here in this community is kept up and maintained, not putting barriers in his way,” said John Clarke. “If you locate somebody for administrative purposes out on the fringes of Scarborough, that is somewhat undermining the role that they can play at Dundas and Sherbourne.”

Clarke said the community is mobilizing and will continue to mobilize in support of Heroux’s desire to remain in the Dundas and Sherbourne neighbourhood.

“They will not succeed in driving him out,” he said. “This attack is going to be challenged; it’s going to be fought back.”

Heroux pointed up to the window on the second floor of the Street Health offices and said: “Mary McGowan, who’s my employer for Neighbourhood Link is in there right now with Laura Cowan and some of the other managers listening to what I have to say. The reason she’s listening very carefully is because last week I met with her and my other supervisor and I was given a letter of caution about what I could say and not say about the situation.”

He wouldn’t repeat what was discussed in that meeting, but he did say that he has to inform Neighbourhood Link by Friday when they can come and pick up the contents of his office that he’s had at Street Health for the past ten years.

In a written statement, Neighbourhood Link and Street Health said, “To help Neighbourhood Link with a shortage of office space when this program was first started, Street Health has provided Gaetan office space at Street Health to carry out the administrative portion of his job.”

Heroux assists homeless people to apply for their personal identification so they can access housing, healthcare and other essential services. He meets with clients at two downtown shelters and two drop-in centres during scheduled ID clinic hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“None of the current ID clinics will be affected,” said Neighbourhood Link and Street Health.

“There will be no cuts to ID services. Gaetan will continue to attend the ID clinics at the Fred Victor Centre drop in, Fred Victor Centre Women’s Hostel, Evergreen youth drop in and the Maxwell Meighan shelter. Clients who see Gaetan to fill out an application for ID are able to pick up their mail at the ID clinics or at the Street Health office as they do today.”

They also said: “Gaetan is not being fired or having his work hours reduced. His responsibilities to the homeless, his work hours and his pay are not being changed.”

Heroux was told to report to Neighbourhood Link by December 7.

“I decided to respond to the people who I’m accountable to rather than this agency,” said Heroux at Monday’s rally. “So you’re the first to hear this.”

Heroux said when the decision was made in October to move the program, he wasn’t consulted. “More importantly, they didn’t bother to talk to anybody who uses the service,” he said. “So my decision is not to move away from Street Health.”

Heroux made it clear that he was not resigning from the ID Project. He plans to continue to work in the same area he has worked in the last ten years. But he can’t condone a move that will create “hardship to thousands of people who have been using the service over the last ten years.”

While Heroux admitted that the ID clinics won’t be affected by moving him to Scarborough, he regularly visits shelters that are within a five minute walking distance of Street Health. During the clinics, Heroux said he only has time to process applications. The remaining 30 hours a week he spends in his office at Street Health, where he is available to those who need his help and to listen to their stories. 

“When we hear these stories, we’ve mobilized, we’ve organized to address the conditions people live in,” he said.

Under the proposed move, clients would have to find transit fare and travel at least one hour to visit Heroux in Scarborough. But he has a sense that he’ll be fired after speaking out at Monday’s rally.

“Should the people inside decide to do that, it will light a match in this community,” said Cathy Crowe, representing a group called Friends of Street Health that’s been fighting against alleged union busting activities and speaking at Monday’s rally in support of Heroux.

“I’m also sad to say a Street Health nurse said, ‘Friends of Street Health stands for Full of Shit.’”

Former Street Health executive director Kathy Hardill said, “If somebody had told me 20 years ago that homeless people and their allies would be protesting in front of Street Health, I would not have believed that.”

But there they stood.

Hardill’s known Heroux for 20 years and called him “a man of courage.” If you go to any drop-in or shelter or park all across the downtown, she said, people will tell you that they know Gaetan and how much he fights for them.

“Now it is our turn to fight for Gaetan,” she said. “It’s illogical to relocate Gaetan no matter how you look at it. It’s not going to help Gaetan, homeless people or this community. It flies in (the face) of all of the principles on which Street Health was founded.”

Hardill alleged that Street Health is angry with Heroux, who supported his colleagues in their right to organize their workplace. (Heroux and fellow ID workers wrote a letter of support for the unionized staff at Street Health.)

“We’re angry too,” said Hardill, “and we won’t let Gaetan be moved.” The Homeless ID Project has been located at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne for 23 years. “That is hardly a temporary arrangement,” she added.

“The most important time is all the other time in between (ID clinics) when people can come up and talk to you and tell you what’s going on.”

John Bonnar

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