University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Street-Smart Nurse

Cathy Crowe fights for the health needs of the homeless

The wind chill was a stinging -40 degrees Celsius in Toronto when Cathy Crowe (MEd 1992 OISE/UT) received a long-awaited phone call with good news from the mayor’s office. For almost four years, Crowe, a registered nurse, had helped lead a campaign to secure additional shelter space for the city’s homeless. Now, on this January morning, she learned that the Fort York Armoury doors were to be opened to individuals struggling to survive on the brutally cold streets.

Crowe comes naturally to this crusade because “home” to her patients is a shelter, park bench or sidewalk. Fuelling Crowe’s fight is her knowledge of the health hazards of homelessness, which include hypothermia, pneumonia, tuberculosis and hepatitis. “Housing is a basic human right and people can’t be healthy without it,” she says.
In 1980, Crowe left her job at a private clinic in Toronto’s financial district to work at an inner-city health centre. She craved greater involvement in all aspects of patient care, and the centre offers nurses this opportunity. By 1989, after years of treating health problems caused or exacerbated by a lack of housing, she was specializing in health care for the homeless. Since then she has become known as a “street nurse,” an apt moniker coined by one of her patients.

Today, Crowe is one of the country’s leading activists for individuals who are homeless. In 1998, she co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which lobbies all levels 
of government to devote one per cent of their budgets to housing programs.

Just a week after the armoury victory, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation presented Crowe with the Economic Justice Award. It will provide $100,000 per year for up to three years to support her efforts to provide health care for the homeless while working to eliminate homelessness entirely.

Does Crowe see a time when everyone in Canada has adequate housing? “It’s very achievable,” she says, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m extremely optimistic that it will happen.”

Editor’s Note: After the Fort York Armoury closed its doors in mid-February, Crowe was elated that the city found an alternative shelter and referral service for the homeless, the Murray Street Site in Toronto, which operated until mid-April.

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