Fighting homelessness in Ontario's past and in its Doug Ford future

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Fighting Homelessness in Ontario's past and in its Doug Ford future

Cathy Crowe has been a street nurse in Toronto for more than three decades. She has not only delivered community-based primary health care to homeless and poor people over that time, but has also been involved in a wide range of activism, organizing, and advocacy around homelessness, poverty, and housing. Scott Neigh interviews her about that long history of involvement, about what she describes as the "post-apocalyptic scene" that resulted the last time Ontario elected a hard-right government, and about her initial thoughts on what it means for the province and for those of us concerned about social justice to be facing a new era with Doug Ford and the Conservatives in power.

Crowe's involvement in grassroots politics has stretched across many different political eras in Ontario. She was initially politicized as a young working mother in the 1980s. The Cold War was in full effect, and it was the vibrant anti-nuclear movement of that era that first drew her in. She was part of founding a group called Nurses for Social Responsibility, which existed for over a decade. It began with a focus on anti-nuke and peace issues and eventually tackled things like reproductive choice, homelessness, and pushing professional organizations in the nursing field to engage more seriously with social and political issues.

Her professional trajectory started with hospital-based work and then a stint in a private clinic before she found her place in the community health sector, where she has over the years worked in a range of communmity health centres and other organizations serving poor and homeless people.

Being a street nurse has meant providing primary health care to people experiencing homelessness and deep poverty in community-based settings – which has often included drop-ins and shelters, but also in places like encampments under bridges and in the Tent City that existed on Toronto's waterfront between 1998 and 2002. And at every step of the way, it has also meant involvement in grassroots political work related to poverty and homelessness. Most of that has been focused on the local level – anyone following the high-profile fight against the inadequacy of Toronto's emergency shelter system this past winter would likely have encountered Crowe's name, for example. But many of those local issues are at heart related to questions under provincial control, and it has sometimes involved work with a national profile as well.

During the height of the cuts by Ontario's last Conservative government, beginning in the the second half of the 1990s, Crowe was not only working as a street nurse but was a co-founder and the volunteer executive director of the Toronto Diaster Relief Committee. They played an important role in responding politically to the harms of those cuts and, in collaboration with other groups, in pushing the City of Toronto and eventually the Federation of Canadian Municiaplities to declare homelessness a national disaster. This in turn was one factor spurring the federal government of the day to take some much needed (though still insufficient) action. 

The platform with which Ford and the Conservatives won the June 7th provincial election was rather scant on detail, to say the least, so the policy and spending implications of this victory remain vague but ominous. Given Doug Ford's record as a municipal politician in Toronto, given the Conservative Party's record the last time they held power in Ontario, and given that their campaign made promises that would result in the loss of billions and billions of dollars in revenue for the province while refusing to explain where that money would come from, social movements are expecting harsh austerity measures that will cause immeasurable harm and suffering to the most vulnerable people in the province.

Crowe's involvement continues to this day. She continues to challenge the many ways our systems do harm to homeless people – the inadequacy and unhealthy conditions of the shelter system, the lack of affordable housing, the frequent punitive responses to outdoor sleeping, the architectural measures to make public space less friendly to poor and homeless people, the threat climate change poses to the most vulnerable people in our society, and much more. Much of the damage done to Ontario's social safety net in the 1990s has never been repaired, and conditions for people who are homeless or living in deep poverty remain, as far as Crowe is concerned, a disaster. And as she looks towards the impact that Doug Ford's government is likely to have on poor and homeless people, she fears that this already bad situation is about to get much, much worse. Today's episode is based on an interview recorded only one day after the election, so it represents only an initial response to the province's new context. Still, based on this context and on her many years of involvement, Crowe argues that people in Ontario need to start organizing and mobilizing immediately.

Image: Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse - Wikipedia.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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