Silenced at street level

Outspoken Gaetan Heroux is a veteran of the city’s front lines. Why would any poverty org want to ditch him?


A cold breeze knocks the plastic table against the fence pamphlets on top flutter beneath a brick. “Well, Mike,” says Gaetan Heroux, in his clipped, quiet voice, “this is my office today.”

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Heroux is – or was – an I.D. worker for Neighbourhood Link, operating out of a converted coach house in the back yard of Street Health’s Dundas-and-Sherbourne home. He helped homeless and under-housed folks acquire the laminated bits of paper that are supposed to make you a person worthy of services.

But to him, the job was always more than that – a disagreement that figured prominently in his move to his new, open-concept workspace, and added fuel to a surprisingly bitter labour dispute within the walls 10 feet away.

The story of how Heroux (also an OCAP activist in his spare time), came to run a personal-street-service-cum-protest started earlier this month when he wrote a letter criticizing Street Health management. Two days later, he received word that he was to vacate his workspace in Street Health’s offices, which he had used for 10 years, and relocate to Danforth and Victoria Park.

Neighbourhood Link is adamant that the letter and the move are unrelated. Executive director Mary McGowan says her organization’s “temporary” arrangement with Street Health has ended, and Heroux’s location changed, as part of a consolidation of staff to save money on rent.

“Sometimes things are coincidence,” she says. “Agencies can’t make decisions about space that fast. It’s not possible.” Heroux, she says, will continue processing people’s applications through weekly clinics at area drop-ins.

But that, Heroux says, is only a small part of his work. He sees 10 people a day at his Street Health office and more out in the Dundas-Sherbourne ‘hood. “That’s how I know what’s going on for people,” he says.

Saying that the relationships formed on the street are his work’s real value, he refused to move to Victoria Park and was threatened with dismissal (which came two days after our talk outside the office).

The timing provided a lightning rod for certain Street Health staff, who unionized in April 2008 under CUPE 4308. They have been negotiating a collective agreement since January. Union backers have accused management of trying cut back onn staff freedom, benefits and input into service delivery.

And some have alleged that the most vocal critics of management have been dismissed or reassigned. Given the timing, they see Heroux’s sudden disappearance in the same light.

Kelly O’Sullivan, a CUPE negotiator and staffer at Central Neighbourhood House, down the road from Street Health, says staff are concerned that 50 per cent of the Street Health board is no longer composed of street-experienced people, frontline staff are no longer consulted on service changes, and management is unwilling to allow “alternatives to layoffs” – keeping outreach programs running when temporary funding dries up.

Zoe Dodd, for example, worked with Street Health until late 2008 developing its hepatitis C outreach program, the first of its kind. It now runs out of South Riverdale Community Health. When the program’s latest round of federal funding ran out, she was cut. “When I was about to lose my job the first time, staff got together and said, ‘How can we prevent this? We will give up part of our salary to keep the program.”’

After unionizing, things changed. “It was never discussed how the cut was going to impact the community,” she says. “No one seemed concerned about the clients. I was asking, ‘What are we going to tell the community?’ It was a major disruption in a lot of people’s lives.”

Dodd feels her program was only cut because of her support for the union.

Laura Cowan, Street Health’s executive director, says she was surprised by accusations of retributive cuts “made by a small group of angry people.”

“We struggled despite loss of funding to keep [Zoe’s program] going,” she says. “But we had at least a year’s notice that the funding was going to run out. The writing was on the wall.”

She laments the scant funding for health agencies generally – and those doing harm reduction specifically. “You get a project running – you’ve got one, maybe two, years and then it’s gone,” she says. This case is not unique, she points out, adding with wry exhaustion, “The Conservative government is not fond of harm reduction.” Still, no other programs, she says, have been cut.

Cowan acknowledges that the timing of Heroux’s relocation was awkward. “But it would have been stupid of us if we’d seen the letter and said, ‘Time to get rid of him.’ It wasn’t connected.”

One Street Health staffer who wishes to remain anonymous tells me the harm reduction team has gone from seven people to one, while funded positions are going unfilled, outspoken staff are being moved around as “punishment,” and turnover in the last year is greater than the total staff complement. “This is not a healthy place,” says the staffer, who is emphatically “not a union supporter.”

But the more people I talk to, the less comfortable I am with any one particular narrative explaining Heroux’s travails. Except for this: conflicts at street organizations can’t possibly be eased as long as there’s chronic social service burnout and a few souls must constantly cover for our collective lack of soul.

We may have a hulking social service bureaucracy, but providing supports to the poor still ultimately comes down to the few who take it upon themselves to paper over the cracks by forming relationships and using more than a bit of street smarts.

Poverty is political, so it’s hard to imagine why Street Health wouldn’t push to keep one of the community’s strongest advocates – the man described by John Andras, VP of the Recession Relief Coalition, as “the conscience of the downtown.”

Inside the executive director’s office and outside on the pavement, everyone says the organization must be preserved at any cost. But at whose cost? And must those at the bottom always pay the most?

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