[Hpn] Homelessness 'Everything we saw was raw'

Graeme Bacque graeme.bacque@3web.net
Wed, 31 Jan 2001 23:16:02 -0500


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The Toronto Star
Wednesday, January 31, 2001 A18

Homelessness 'Everything we saw was raw'

by Cathy Crowe
TORONTO


The other night, for at least the 10th time since the mayors of
Canada's biggest cities declared homelessness a national disaster, I
toured the disaster zone in Toronto. On the tour were city officials,
aboriginal outreach workers and Bruce McLeod, former moderator of the
United Church. With McLeod as "star" witness, I think to myself, maybe
"they" (the politicians) will finally pay attention.

At one shelter, we saw more than 100 bodies, lying on painfully thin
mats on a basement floor. No windows. Heavy, stuffy air. The silence
interrupted by heavy sounds of coughing. One bathroom for each sex, a
total of four toilet stalls. No showers. A woman with diabetes tells
me she cannot meet her food needs.

Later we visit Nathan Phillips Square. At least 20 men and women are
bedded down in an orderly fashion. They sleep under the bright lights
of City Hall for safety. Five homeless people were murdered last year.
It is cold, around minus 9C.

On another street corner, there is a tent erected, with police
hovering and questioning the "residents."

Everything we saw was raw. Nowhere was there a shred of human dignity.
Yet, these scenes, repeated across the country, are the inevitable
outcome of a decision by the federal government eight years ago. In
1993, Ottawa cancelled all new funding for Canada's national housing
program.

More than 200,000 Canadian men, women and children will experience
homelessness this year. At least 10,000 will sleep outdoors tonight.
Another 2.25 million Canadians in rental housing are on the brink of
homelessness. Families in Toronto may face a 10- to 20-year waiting
list for social housing. In Toronto, the vacancy rate is less than 0.6
per cent, including the condominium market.

Housing advocates want Ottawa to restore $2 billion in social housing
spending. We call this the "1 per cent solution," under which 1 per
cent of the budget would be spend on housing. While in opposition in
1990, the Liberals promised new funding. But once elected, they have
refused to commit a single new penny in the last seven budgets.

Finally, in the last election, the Liberals promised to spend $170
million on a new national housing program.

Why so little? I'm a nurse, not an economist, but I know that the
federal government is running a surplus that has been estimated at as
much as $100 billion over the next few years. Just a fraction of that
would fund a national housing program. Several years ago, Finance
Minister Paul Martin said that $2 billion in annual spending would
cost each taxpayer about 50 cents per day. A year-end survey in
Maclean's magazine found that 75 per cent of those polled support
increased spending on new housing for the homeless.

Two recent studies have found that the 1 per cent solution would fund
about 20,000 to 30,000 new and renovated social housing units
annually. That's about the same number that the federal government was
funding in the early 1980s, before the cuts set in.

Homeless people had hoped to hear the magic words "national housing
program" in yesterday's Throne Speech, with a commitment to $2 billion
in funding. Instead, Ottawa only partly put on its construction boots,
tying its program to co-operation by provincial and territorial
governments. Only two provinces, Quebec and British Columbia, still
fund social housing. Alberta and Ontario have said they won't
contribute provincial dollars, while other provinces don't have the
spare funds. It could take years of political wrangling to work out
details of a new federal-provincial housing program.

The federal government needs to take leadership. It takes time to
build the housing, but we could see new homes as early as next winter
if Ottawa takes action today.

Investing in new social housing is good for the homeless. It also
means new jobs in construction and related sectors a welcome
development at a time when some economists are warning of a possible
recession.

Ottawa, Ontario and Toronto spend hundreds of millions of dollars to
provide temporary relief for the homeless. Claudette Bradshaw, the
federal minister responsible for homelessness, is expected to tour the
country in February to hand out cheques for much-needed emergency
services.

But while more money will make the homeless more comfortable, the
growing number of homeless people is overwhelming the new services.

Canada urgently needs a new national housing program. Bradshaw heard
this message during an extensive tour of Canada in 1999. Martin, who
chaired the Liberal housing task force in 1990, also knows the need
for new housing funding.

In the last few weeks, more than 10,000 people have sent postcards to
Prime Minister Jean Chretien to support the 1 per cent solution. Many
more are on the way.

Instead of leading tours through Toronto's homeless disaster zones, I
would like to return to my first love, nursing. But that will only be
possible once the federal government finally commits to $2 billion for
housing.

NOTE

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse and founding member of the Toronto
Disaster Relief committee.
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