Excerpted from Dying For A Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out (Between the Lines Press), by street nurse and Toronto Disaster Relief Committee co-founder Cathy Crowe.
My dad was a truck driver. he did long hauls and was away for long periods. I was the oldest of eight. I only went to grade 7.
My dad drank a lot. When he was home there was usually arguing, fighting, drinking. I ran away all the time. Once I was put in a group home until I went to court for being a runaway.
[When] I was almost 14, I ran off with the man who ended up being my husband. I got pregnant, and we were married just before my 15th birthday.
When I was pregnant, he threw me down three flights of stairs. I left. My baby, a girl was born December 13, 1974, and I lived with my mom. But then I ended up back together with my ex and we had another baby girl two years later, but the marriage didn't last long.
I was pretty much on my own. My mom helped raise my youngest.
My experiences with abuse prepared me to work in a pilot project at Regent Park Community Health Centre. I was an outreach worker for six months. I would meet with women and help them to find shelter or a safe house.
I lost my apartment. I stayed at just about every women's shelter, many times. It was very stressful. I was attacked in a woman's shelter. I know that the woman who attacked me was ill, so rather than have the shelter kick her out, I said I'd leave.
Once in a while I would rent a hotel room for one or two nights at the Gladstone or the Budget just to get out of the shelter system. Lots of people do that, just to get a rest. It used to cost $20 to $25 a night.
Sometimes I slept outside, like on a grate (I still have a steam burn), or sometimes on cardboard laid out on a park bench or in the gazebo at St. James Park. We could stay dry if it rained.
When the police began harassing us, a friend said to me, "There's a place, a vacant lot on the water. You can build a hut there." I went down, and that's where I stayed for five years - Tent City. There were three others already there. I was the first girl.
I felt very comfortable. I stayed in a gutted-out van. It was stripped, no windows, and it had no floor. I installed styrofoam where the empty windows were. I draped sleeping bags over it for insulation.
While I was living outside, I was receiving about $485 - the "living allowance" from ODSP [the Ontario Disability Support Program], because I have some long-term health problems.
But after you buy your heavy clothing, you still need more. So over the years I have nearly always "panned" at Bay and Dundas. I started panning because some food banks didn't want to give us food because we "didn't have an address."
A few more people came, including my friend Marty. Marty and I moved into a camper donated to us by a guy from Calgary. He just showed up one day and asked if anyone would like his old camper on the back of his truck, and we lifted it off.
The camper was a little crowded for two. But we managed. We had extra blankets, and we sealed off and winterized it. We bought glue, duct tape and tarps, and did the windows.
Other people then were living in makeshift shacks or tents. We all kind of pitched in to help each other. We started getting propane and used it to fuel small heaters. One year, Toronto Disaster Relief Committee helped us get a generator that ran on diesel.
We had our routines. The ducks we called Donald and Daisy would quack at us and we would wake up early. Then we would gather kindling for the fire barrel, put the kettle on, make coffee, sit around the fire barrel, collect water, boil it, do dishes and laundry.
We did our laundry by hand in five-gallon pails and hung it on a clothesline. During the day, most people left for errands, appointments, to see friends. In bad weather we would all go up to the drop-ins at All Saints Church.
We all shared stuff down there, even food. Someone would make a big pot of Beefaroni. It was home. Better than a park bench. I felt hopeful, but then the police would warn us we were going to be kicked off. "Don't make yourself comfortable," they'd snarl.
The day of the eviction was pretty discouraging, actually. I was on my way uptown when I ran into my friend Penny, who said, "You'd better get down to Tent City. They're evicting everybody.' I never got back in. I ended up losing everything. All my clothes. A lot of things I can't replace. Pictures of my kids. But the most precious thing I lost was my freedom.
Then I got into the Tent City rent supplement program. I've got a one-bedroom apartment now. I'm still not used to being on my own, but Marty lives in the same building. I'm on ODSP and get $863 a month. The average rent for a one-bedroom in Toronto is $800. The average waiting list for a subsidized unit is 12 years.
In this program I pay $139 and my rent is topped up by the supplement. Someday I'd like a balcony. After living at Tent City I hate being closed in.
Cathy Crowe on Nancy Baker
Nancy Baker has earned just about every line on her face. Perhaps more than anybody else who has witnessed the extent of the deaths over the years, Nancy has really allowed herself to fold into the grief and the loss. She knows most of the names on the Homeless Memorial Board. Yet in her own way, she continues to come out fighting. She is considered feisty on the streets, rebellious at City Hall and she's been fighting on the homeless front for many years.