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Layton puts homeless on front pages

[PoliticsWatch posted May 28, 2004]

George and Tony are two men living at a homeless shelter blocks away from Parliament Hill..

OTTAWA — Homelessness has emerged as the hot topic in this federal election after comments NDP Leader Jack Layton made suggesting that social housing cuts by Prime Minister Paul Martin led to the deaths of homeless people. 

But while much of the reporting on this issue is now focused on the back-and-forth between Martin and Layton and the BlackBerry exchanges from the parties' respective war rooms, not much attention has been given to the views of the homeless on the issue. 

PoliticsWatch visited a downtown Ottawa shelter to discuss the Layton-Martin controversy with those who are experts on homelessness - the homeless. 

"I'm not saying Martin's killing people." 

We spoke to two men. George has been on the streets for about 17 years and says he has traveled across Canada three times living in shelters. While Tony is new to the homeless scene, living in shelters for just two months. 

"I'm trying to get a job and get out of here," says the younger Tony. 

Both men were aware of the comments made by Layton directly linking social housing cuts to deaths, but George, who was critical about the lack of funding for social housing and the homeless, was skeptical about Layton's claim. 

"I'm not saying Martin's killing people," he says without hesitation. "You do can't do that either."

George said the homeless situation in Ottawa is actually "not bad right now."

"You cannot starve to death in Ottawa," he said. "I don't care what anybody says. There's no way. There's way too much food." 

But what about those who freeze to death in the winter? 

"Now that's your own problem," says George. "If you freeze to death, you do it to yourself."

Tony nodded in agreement. 

However, the opinion of the two men may not be in tune with the situation in Toronto. An NDP press release today said that 44 homeless died in 2001 in Toronto and that number rose to 308 part way through 2003. 

And Cathy Crowe, a street nurse who is co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, agrees with Layton's comments that affordable housing cuts are leading to an increasing rate of death for the homeless.

"I'm not really sure why people are so surprised at the comment," she said. "It's not something that hasn't been said before," says Crowe, who said no one knows that exact total number of homeless deaths but there has been a noticeable increase. 

She has no problem laying the blame for the homeless deaths with the Liberals. 

Outcome of social policy fair game

"No one is saying … that Paul Martin went out and purposely murdered people," she said. "But it is acceptable to talk about the outcome of social policy."

While she agrees with the Liberal spin machine's assertion that the Mulroney government's 1993 axing of the affordable housing program created the problem, she said that the Liberals did not do anything to remedy it. 

"What happened was Martin promised and talked about putting that money back in the budget and keeping it, and he did not. And it was the 1995 budget where he did not reintroduce that money or keep that money alive," she said. 

For her, Layton's spontaneous comments have helped return the spotlight on an issue that she said is being overlooked. 

"People here are almost crying because the issue is being discussed," said Crowe. "And it just kind of happened. No communication strategy made it happen and it just came out like a some kind of an accident." 

She said there are other factors, such as welfare cuts, that are adding to the burden of the homeless crisis, but said lack of affordable housing is the "absolutely No. 1 reason" increasing the death rate of the homeless.

The number of homeless people is increasing "astronomically" across the country due to lack of affordable housing, according to Crowe. 

Crowe said homeless deaths are more than just people freezing on the streets. 

She cited a variety of factors directly related to homelessness, such as trauma, violent crime, suicide and disease from shelters.

Meanwhile, the two homeless men we talked to said a situation they believe could lead to a serious and visible problem is happening in Ottawa where a detox centre is slated to be closed. 

"You will see people dying on the streets when they could have been put into a detox centre," said George.

Tony agreed and said that closing of such services is "going to hurt a lot of people." 

George, who is a recovering addict who says he doesn't use everyday but will occasionally will have a beer, said that some of the new money Martin announced for health care this week should be directed toward services that help the homeless, such as detox centres. 

"If they can put $9 billion into the new health care centre system … what is health care? An addict is a disease."

But despite not thinking that Paul Martin is responsible for the deaths of homeless people, both did not give the government a ringing endorsement and said more should be done to help the homeless. They were also pleased with the spotlight Layton's comments had put on the issue. 

"I think we deserve more than what they're doing for us right now. You can't ignore people that have got problems," said George. "We've got problems. But you've got to show respect. 

"People have got to realize the situation we're in."

Both men also said they plan to vote but are having a hard time making up their minds.

"I will vote, but for who?" says Tony. 

George said he thinks Martin is "doing a pretty good job," but he may be a bit biased. 

He is a former employee of Martin's company Canada Steamship Lines, where he served for two months as a cook and seaman, shortly before Martin and a partner bought the company in 1981. 

"I know who Paul Martin is because I used to sail with CSL, Canada Steamship Lines," he boasts. 

But like many Canadians he has doubts about whether the prime minister was sincere in his vow to get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal. 

"That's only going to go into the washer," he said. 

"But if a street person, if we done something like that in a mall - stole something - we're going to jail for a month. Take two hundred and some odd million dollars and it disappears and you know nobody is doing time. That's not right."

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