Many of the doors political hopeful Cathy Crowe has been knocking on are at the homes of former patients.
The NDP candidate for Toronto Centre was a street nurse in the area for more than 20 years, and she’s hoping to bring what she calls poverty activism front and centre in the next provincial legislature.
“Canvassing is like a reorientation to the community,” she says.
Crowe describes homes infested with bedbugs, seniors living in squalor, an ongoing need for emergency shelter beds and disabled people with access issues. “The follow-up work is huge. Lots of people are falling through the cracks... the situation with [queer and trans seniors] is probably way worse. I think the problem is very hidden.”
Crowe, 59, is the cofounder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She spent years fighting for improved shelter facilities in Toronto, and she continues to direct her campaign’s focus on health and housing.
She also remembers the early '90s, when some shelters in the city wouldn’t allow same-sex couples to share a bedroom together. “It was absolute discrimination. We fought that."
Crowe is running against two gay candidates: Liberal incumbent Glen Murray and Green Party candidate Mark Daye, as well as Martin Abell, the Progessive Conservative candidate.
If elected, the NDP would add 50,000 new affordable housing units over 10 years, she says. “We need more specialized sites and shelters. There’s a movement across the country to close shelters and a whole economic argument that says shelters are too expensive.”
More than 152,000 Ontario households are on a waiting list for affordable housing, and about 20 percent of tenants are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing, advocates noted recently in the Toronto Star.
Crowe, a reluctant politician, is running for a second time because of such serious problems in the community. She says many Toronto Centre residents urged her to get back in the race.
“I couldn’t go anywhere without people approaching me, asking me if I plan to run -- in buses, in lineups, at the bank.
“I’m actually an introvert and shy,” Crowe says in her trademark whimsical tone. “That surprises people because they’re used to seeing me with a megaphone protesting at rallies. That’s not me normally. That comes from a drive, anger or passion for an issue.”
That passion and drive has emboldened Crowe as she prepares to fight recent service cuts proposed by Toronto city council. “Part of our strategy involves working on that now. Even though these are municipal decisions, they have provincial connections. It felt unnatural for me not to call on saving the Riverdale Farm or AIDS funding, libraries and everything else on that master list.
“This is huge. Ford is touching everyone.”
Crowe points to NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s pledge to upload transit and housing costs from municipalities. “The Toronto city budget is a mess. It’s been created by conservatives.
“People are talking about this issue at the door. I want people to know I care about the services in Toronto. And I will fight for those services. When you lose services you can barely get them back.”
On education, Crowe says she stands behind Ontario Catholic students trying to form gay-straight alliances but admits she needs more information on the issue.
“From my understanding the Ministry of Education’s [equity and inclusive education] policy says students are allowed to form GSAs, and it’s not happening. So we need to look at that, and I have questions to ask about how we will deal with it. How will we force school boards to do that? Will there be penalties? The NDP will stand firmly behind the policy. It must be mandatory.”
Crowe doesn’t shy away from discussion of HIV criminalization, promising to bring community leaders together to work on prosecutorial guidelines to prevent confusion in the courts, something activists say is long overdue.
Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley recently applied to intervene in a Supreme Court of Canada decision that activists say would make it easier for courts to convict HIV-positive Canadians who don’t disclose their status to sexual partners.
“No one should ever be criminalized because of a health condition,” she says firmly. “Unfortunately, there’s so much fear around this issue.”