Cathy Crowe, Street Fighting Nurse
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Cathy Crowe, Street Fighting Nurse

June Callwood watches over Cathy Crowe as she delivers the fifth annual June Callwood Lecture.

Cathy Crowe remembers June Callwood as “a real doer.” Crowe (a community health nurse) met Callwood (a journalist-cum-activist) when Crowe was new to her job and assigned to volunteer at Nellie’s, helping with the shelter’s Sunday dinner. A single mother, Crowe was overwhelmed by the thought of cooking for more than two people, but Callwood, who didn’t waste any time being overwhelmed, assigned the nurse to be sous chef for the night.
After Callwood’s death in 2007, the Toronto Public Library established an eponymous lecture series to honour the journalist’s activism and carry on the torch of social justice. So it was fitting that late last week, it was Cathy Crowe standing in the middle of the Toronto Reference Library’s atrium to deliver the fifth annual June Callwood lecture.

Crowe, meeting and greeting.

The lecture, “The Kitchen is the Heart of the Home” [PDF], focused on tales of bureaucratic frustration when trying to serve a community’s needs: increasing reliance on faith-based charity groups in the absence of government intervention, and, most of all, the pressing need for more help.
The lecture’s namesake, June Callwood, first saw that pressing need for more help in the hippie wonderland of 1960s Yorkville. In a 1984 interview, Callwood—then in her 40s with teenaged children—says her initial intrigue and optimism about the movement was quelled when she actually went to Yorkville to meet the front-line hippies. She found the middle class flower children, like her own children, had all fled, leaving behind “kids from Sudbury and Newfoundland whose teeth had rotted out of their heads and they’re shooting speed.”
The solution seemed easy: just tell people. Say to them, “This is a generation of kids that you’re throwing away and someone’s got to help them.” Instead of help, Callwood saw what she called a genocide by silent consensus. The street kids were hated, beaten up by police, and refused treatment at hospitals. From then on the journalist devoted her life to social justice. To telling people. And to providing desperately needed front-line relief to the city’s most vulnerable.
As the evening’s host, Adam Vaughan introduced Crowe as a woman who not only walked in the footsteps of June Callwood, but ran in them. From that first night as sous chef, Crowe has worked the front lines of public health in Toronto tirelessly, and now for decades, giving care and attention to the most vulnerable amongst us: the women, men, and children who go without food and shelter throughout freezing winters and sweltering summers. Those who rely on the outreach of dedicated individuals like Crowe to survive. Those who are finding they can depend less and less on the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe and secure.
In 1998 Crowe co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which declared homelessness a national disaster and pushed for better social housing programs. She’ll speak to anyone who will listen. She’s taught courses about homelessness at Ryerson University, contributed to documentary films on the subject, written a book about the need for a national social housing program, and in the process received multiple honorary doctorates and international human rights awards.
But for all the international acclaim, Crowe’s work is doggedly focused on the street level. Vaughan spoke of trying to interview Crowe in his own days as a journalist, only to have her wander off—”surrender a conversation with someone that might make institutional change”—to care for a patient. To cut toenails or get a blanket.
Crowe’s lecture comes at a precarious time for social services not just in Toronto but across the entire country. Her speech frequently referred to better days before federal and provincial governments made deep cuts to social programs—such as the Harris government’s 21.6 per cent cut to shelter allowances in 1995.
“Twenty-four years [after the cuts],” she stressed, “our city—let’s keep remembering it as our city—continues to rely on faith-based volunteer services to provide emergency shelter, crisis counselling, safety. And that does not seem right.”
Despite the City’s official line that homelessness is decreasing in Toronto [PDF], Crowe tells a different tale. She tells of Sistering serving over 131,000 meals in 2010. She tells of Sistering’s Christmas dinner feeding 300 people last year—an increase of 200 from the previous year.

Adam Vaughan, Cathy Crowe, and audience sing along as the Common Threads Chorus leads the group in a singalong of protest songs.

When Crowe speaks about Al Gosling, her voice wavers. Gosling died in 1999 after being locked out of his Toronto Community Housing apartment for failing to properly file some paperwork stating his low-income status. After sleeping in his building’s stairwell for a week, the 82-year-old Gosling was moved to a shelter where he got sick, and later died in hospital.
“It used to be, in the old days, that when somebody died homeless it was usually an extreme event like a freezing death. Sometimes old age or cancer. But usually something very extreme that made the front page of the newspaper,” said Crowe. When someone died homeless, the TDRC would hold a press conference, visit City Hall, call for more emergency shelter beds, and sometimes actually get them. Eventually the mayor’s door became locked to them, she said. They haven’t tested the new mayor’s door yet. “But we probably should,” she adds.
Nowadays, every second Tuesday of the month, members of TDRC and the Church of the Holy Trinity add names of those who have died homeless in the city to a memorial. In February they set a grim record: 13 names added to the list. And those are only the names they could confirm, since neither Public Health nor the coroner’s office track homeless deaths in Toronto.
For those who are compelled to act, Crowe encourages people to consider donations of time, energy, and money in three parts: a third to front-line work (like volunteering at a soup kitchen), a third to housing efforts (potentially donating money), and a third to supporting advocacy (like writing letters to politicians).
“Today we still need what I call kitchens of relief,” said Crowe. “Kitchens where the loving hands stir soup and chili, and hand it out to those in need. But we now more than ever need those hands to stir the political pot, to make sure we get off the path of relying on charity and cutting back services. Because too many people are left without shelter, and today—more so than 10 years ago—too many more are also left hungry, without enough income for food, and without justice.”
Unsurprisingly, most of the people who came out to last night’s lecture, June Callwood’s daughter among them, knew the plight of the homeless in this city all too well. But then there were those who were just down at the library studying or working away on their own projects who were pulled in by Crowe’s speech. Organizers said the decision to move the event out of the tucked-away Appel Salon, where it had been held in the past, into the atrium was a conscious effort to make a more intimate atmosphere.
“Because it’s like you’re in a home,” says Anne Marie Aikins, Community Relations Manager for the library. “And anybody that’s in that home can join in if they want to.”
Photos by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.