A page on the National Housing Strategy’s website begins, “There is no place like home.” It’s a cozy-sounding, feel-good line — a glib reference to a ruby-slippered fiction full of magic and happy endings that highlights the divide between those tasked with creating solutions to homelessness and those who need them. The same could be said about public health messaging in the early days of the pandemic: Stay home. Stay two metres apart. Wash your hands. This advice did little to help those who had no home, who relied on crowded congregate shelters, and who often lacked access to running water once public washrooms were closed. Time and again, the experiential gap between decision makers addressing homelessness and those who live it is big enough for lives to fall through. And they do, over and over.
In Displacement City: Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic, Michael Eschbach, disabled and homeless for over ten years, refers to “two worlds that will never see each other.” Greg Cook and Cathy Crowe hope to change that with this book. The co-editors have gathered essays, interviews, poetry, and photography from numerous contributors who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity, as well as from tenacious allies. Both long-time advocates working directly on Toronto’s streets, Cook and Crowe pull up a chair for readers, make introductions, and create a space for listening, for learning, and for change.
How we act, whether as individuals or as part of a collective, leans on what we think, and what we think grows from what we know. What many of us know is that the last few years have seen a brutal triple threat in Canada’s cities: an affordability and housing crisis, an overdose epidemic, and COVID-19. But how much do most Canadians actually know about what it’s like to live through such a deadly mix? Most of us watched it unfold on the news in our own isolation, but Cook and Crowe witnessed the emergency and the response first-hand. Despite positive municipal messaging, the people of Toronto were never “all in this together.”
Testimony gives this book its power. The first chapter opens with a simple “Hello there” from Nikki Sutherland, a survivor of the Sixties Scoop who relates her experience of living on and getting off the streets of Toronto. Other contributors — including nurses, outreach and harm reduction workers, lawyers, and palliative care physicians — take readers inside encampments, evictions, and emergency shelter-hotels. Together, they expose us to often impossible choices; to critical evaluations of the sometimes absurd municipal decisions that do more harm than good, despite a language of care; and to feelings of being unwanted, unheard, and exhausted from fighting a system deeply rooted in discrimination and displacement.
Equally foregrounded are stories of mutual support. For while it’s important to hear the hard parts, getting a full picture also means witnessing people’s remarkable efforts to care for one another. We learn of coalitions, networks, and programs that are forged from necessity and about turn-on-a-dime solutions devised by thinly stretched non-profits, social service organizations, and advocacy groups. While these are the front lines everyone likes to celebrate, they are too often insufficiently resourced or supported. “This community,” Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker, explains, “was in it together.”
As its subtitle suggests, this book is not just about fighting — it’s about fighting for. Specifically focused on Toronto, Displacement City is nonetheless a forward-looking effort, grounded in goals for a more just and equal society based on human rights for everyone, everywhere. In his afterword, the journalist and author Shawn Micallef asks, “What kind of a city is Toronto?” But readers across Canada can substitute their nearest urban centre in that sentence and consider the concerns and critiques gathered here, as well as the creative responses and inspirational collaborations.
Indeed, many contributors raise questions that reach beyond municipal borders. “Why are we seen as different? Lesser? Animals?” Michael Eschbach asks. “Does it make sense if you have resources to share, and you decide not to share them?” the anti-poverty activist Dreddz wonders. “How can we witness so much death and suffering over and over and lose our friends, family, and co-workers and keep going?” the harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd questions. And as Naheed Dosani and Trevor Morey, both physicians with Palliative Education and Care for the Homeless, or PEACH, press readers: “Do we really care?” Such concerns confront and perhaps uncover our individual attitudes and assumptions. They speak to the core of what kind of society we’re willing to champion, what we’re willing to accept, and what we’re willing to challenge.
To answer many of these questions, we first need to close the gap in understanding. As the multiple perspectives in this book show, even for seemingly simple ideas like safety, community, health, and home, words can carry different meanings depending on one’s culture, context, and needs. When a volunteer group built a number of small foam domes in Moss Park, just east of the Bay Street financial district, the city balked. “What is this?” a resident named AK paraphrases the official stance. Those in the park responded, “This is house!” But the city insisted, “This is a garbage!” The financialization of housing means that for many, homes are mostly seen as assets. From the perspective of medical doctors and residents like AK, however, having shelter is about health. (According to the federal government’s own 2019 National Housing Strategy Act, housing is also about human rights.)
“The COVID-19 pandemic floodlit Canada’s housing crisis,” Leilani Farha, a former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, writes in her chapter on accountability. In fact, Displacement City never allows readers to lose sight of accountability —
at all levels of government — and what the stakes really are. “It has been a constant battle,” the disabled artist Jennifer Jewell explains, “and it is killing me.”
Sadly, many entries have been added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial throughout the pandemic. Displacement City honours their memory by listing them up front. Sitting with those names and the pages that follow can take readers only so far across the experiential divide. But to read this book is also to accept an invitation — to step onto a bridge built of so much more than paper. It’s a step worth taking.