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Defiant poor pack rowdy public meeting

by Mick Sweetman

Gaetan Heroux holds up a copy of the program of the unemployed council movement of 1933 as he addresses a meeting of poor people on Friday, March 26. PHOTO: Mick Sweetman
Gaetan Heroux holds up a copy of the program of the unemployed council movement of 1933 as he addresses a meeting of poor people on Friday, March 26. PHOTO: Mick Sweetman

Toronto — Over 75 poor and working people held a rowdy public meeting at St. Luke's church at Sherbourne and Carlton Friday evening. The meeting followed the Ontario budget announcement that cut the Special Diet supplement for people on social assistance.

A.J. Withers from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) kicked the night off by calling for an immediate 40 per cent increase to social assistance. Withers said, “Right now a single person on welfare gets a shamefully low $364 a month for rent. A person on ODSP gets $464 for rent. Yet for a one-bedroom in this city, the average price is $927 a month. No matter how you do the math, social assistance rates never add up.”

Outlining the impact of the elimination of the special diet supplement. Withers claims the cut of the benefit, which pays a maximum of $250 a month, means a 30 per cent loss to a single person on Ontario Works (OW) and a 19 per cent drop in income for someone on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

Withers spoke passionately to the crowd, “This cut will devastate us. It will devastate our families and communities. This summer we will see an increase in homelessness, hunger and desperation as many people lose the only means they have to support themselves.”

The meeting had a large panel of long-time downtown anti-poverty activists and social agency workers who addressed the question of what role agencies play in struggles by poor people in Toronto.

One agency that has historically played an important role in supporting and advocating for the demands of poor people in east downtown is Street Health. Founded by homeless people and progressive health-care workers in 1986, Street Health was a leader in providing cutting-edge and innovative solutions to health care to poor and homeless people while advocating for an end to the poverty that created the need for their services.

However, it was clear from the speakers, which included former Street Health workers such as street nurse Cathy Crowe, that the agency has changed.

The current board is trying to bust the union, CUPE Local 4308, that Street Health workers joined in April 2008 in response to an increasingly  hostile work environment and has cooperated with the Neighbourhood Link agency to evict long-time ID worker Gaetan Heroux from the building on Dec. 7, 2009.

Crowe said that many agencies used to support anti-poverty coalitions such as the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and would allow use of their buildings for meetings and agency workers to attend on work time, which supported homeless people's participation. That role by the agencies is missing today as they move away from advocacy towards simple service provision.

Crowe opined, “Street Health is the worst example of what's been happening, but we need to force the agencies to come together. There has to be the expectation that they support the needs of poor people in this community.”

Brian Dubourdiex who has been homeless and organizing poor people in east downtown for over 20 years spoke on the beginnings of Street Health: “I settled in 20 years ago to a hostel called Salvation Army. I met some friends and we formed an organization called Street Health. It was a great organization run by homelessness people. It was run and commanded by street people.

“I sat on that board for six years, and you know what? I enjoyed my six years on it, but the last year I didn't enjoy it because I saw the decline. I saw them systematically take homeless people off the board. I saw them invest money in friggin' goddamn stock markets. They lost a bunch of money - so no socks for the homelessness. I saw positions go a year without being filled just to pay up accounts. That's ridiculous. This is not the same Street Health that I knew. I knew a Street Health that swung above its weight and [where] people advocated. Anyone that advocates now for Street Health, tries to help out the homelessness, is silenced - they're cut off. That's what disgusts me about this unit. I will not deal with that unit. That's why I want to see Street Health  go down.”

Gaetan Heroux has organized with OCAP and various east downtown agencies for over 20 years talked about the history of resistance by poor people in Toronto.

“What kind of tactics did they use?" asked Heroux while holding up a copy of the program of the unemployed council movement from 1933: "Mass meetings. Mass demonstrations and parades in public meeting squares. Hunger marches both at the local, provincial and national level. Strikes of relief workers. Mass picketing of homes and offices of officials to demand improvement of conditions of the unemployed. Surrounding and occupations of homes of workers to prevent evictions or seizing furniture. Circulating petitions for unemployment insurance and other demands. Supporting strikes of employed workers. Organizing protests and demonstrations against layoffs. Holding public hearings to expose and reveal conditions of the unemployed. Public trials of grafting officials.

“This community has a long, long, long, history of resistance. And every time we take to the streets we should know that there were people before us who were doing the same.”

After the panel finished, announcements were made imploring people to join the organizing for a similar public meeting in the west downtown neighbourhood of Parkdale on April 9, at 6 p.m. at the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre. OCAP is also mobilizing for a rally and march on the McGuinty government on April 15 starting at Allan Gardens Park at noon.

Ending the night and summing up the defiant mood of the room, an unidentified man spoke from the floor and said, “I was very disturbed on my way here. Over the last few weeks I began to study the problems as they affect a major community leader. I must tell you on my way someone said to me 'You should not go to that meeting. That guy, that bald-head guy, the mad-man that is leading it, he will get arrested and you might be arrested too.' I still came. I said, 'We will be arrested together!'” To which the audience broke out into loud applause.

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Topics: Poverty

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Mick Sweetman (Mick Sweetman)
Member since December 2009


Mick Sweetman is a journalist in Toronto. His stories and photographs have been published in Alternet, the Calgary Strait, Canadian Dimension, Clamor, Industrial Worker, The Media Co-op, New Socialist, The Northeastern Anarchist, On the Prowl,, Strike!, They Call it Struggle for a Reason, Vox Magazine, and Znet

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