Only great effort will change Canada’s homelessness crisis

There have been times over the course of her 22-year career as a Toronto street nurse when Cathy Crowe has thought about giving up. Faced with the enormity of trying to make inroads in Canada’s homelessness crisis, Crowe has battled seemingly insurmountable odds and government inaction for most of her career.

What does she do to stay inspired? Crowe, speaking at Thursday afternoon’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Health, said she looks for inspiration in some pretty unusual places. Documentary films such as If You Love this Planet, film footage of civil rights activist Martin Luther King delivering his “I have a dream” speech and the wonder of Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz and the film ET: The Extraterrestrial offer inspiration. They also contain a running subtext about homelessness.

Left: Cathy Crowe

But it was Tim Burton’s latest film Alice in Wonderland that offered Crowe a new approach to coping with the seemingly impossible. In Burton’s modern take on the classic book by Lewis Carroll, a teenaged Alice once again finds herself down a dark rabbit hole. Alice, after a series of adventures, is tasked with slaying the fearsome Jabberwocky. Frightened, overwhelmed and thinking of giving up, Alice is told by the Mad Hatter, that the situation she faces is “only impossible if you believe it is.”

“Alice decides to reveal to the Mad Hatter: ‘Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,’” said Crowe. “The Mad Hatter turns to her and says, ‘That’s an excellent practice, but just for the moment you might want to focus on the Jabberwocky.’”

“So, after 22 years now as a street nurse, I have decided I need to wake up every morning like Alice. I need to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast and stay focused on the Jabberwocky, the beast that we face, because I firmly believe that it is inevitable that we will take the beast down and win a national housing program. And I hope a lot more.”

For Crowe, holding onto that inspiration offers a vital way to continue with her mission in life, which is to alleviate homelessness in Canada. To that effect, she has committed much of her adult life to working with the homeless and trying to develop solutions to the seemingly insurmountable systemic problems that keep people on the streets. A vocal advocate for social justice and equity to help improve the lives of the marginalized and poor, Crowe works the frontlines as a street nurse caring for the homeless.

In 1998, Crowe co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), which sparked Canada-wide action on affordable housing by declaring homelessness a national disaster. The campaign’s signature “one per cent” slogan demands that all levels of government commit an additional one per cent of their budgets to an affordable social housing program. Last Thursday, June 17, Crowe was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by York University. 

Right: Cathy Crowe (left) prepares to receive her honorary degree from Chancellor Roy McMurtry and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri 

“After we [TDRC] did the impossible and declared homelessness a national disaster in 1998, I was relieved because I believed the solution, a national housing program, would be forthcoming,” she said.

“Today, I am dismayed. I can only describe our governments’ efforts to deal with mass homelessness as comparable to BP’s ‘Top Hat’ procedure to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – efforts that focus on concealment, containment, and media damage control and disregard for health.

“Our governments have made little, if any effort, to deal with the deprivation of poverty and its accompanying hunger and homelessness,” she said.

“Our country’s leaders have not put effort into dealing with the one in six First Nations communities who do not have safe drinking water or to remedying the situation in Attawapiskat First Nation [in the Kenora region of Northern Ontario], where ironically their school sits on a site contaminated by over 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel,” she said.

Similar lack of effort holds true in efforts to reduce Canada’s staggeringly high infant mortality rate, which has the country sitting at 24th in the world and to finding housing for the some four million people in Canada still waiting for a place to truly call home, said Crowe.

And so as she continues her battle, Crowe is developing a documentary film series titled Home Safe with York student Elizabeth Lee. In the Toronto section of the series, a young girl who had been homeless tells Crowe that the most important thing about home is: “Being able to say you have one.”

York’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Crowe’s convocation address, click here.