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Anti-poverty activist continues fight to return to work in East Downtown Toronto

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TORONTO - Five months after being fired, Gaetan Heroux still hasn’t given up hope of regaining his job as an ID worker at Neighbourhood Link and returning to his office on Sherbourne Street in Toronto’s Downtown East End.

Heroux was terminated last December after refusing to relocate to Scarborough, a move his supporters felt was punishment for standing up for Street Health workers embroiled in a bitter struggle to unionize their workplace and negotiate a first contract.

Since then, the long time anti-poverty activist has spent part of that time working under contract with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to bring ID services back into the neighbourhood where he’s worked for the past ten years. 

“Over the last ten weeks, we had a public meeting to talk about services and handed out pamphlets about what’s going on,” said Heroux at a rally held Wednesday in Allan Gardens to announce the release of a new report investigating the provision of ID Services in the Dundas Sherbourne neighbourhood.

The report, prepared by three long-time Toronto activists, concluded that moving Heroux out of the Street Health offices last December was done because he spoke out in favor of the Street Health CUPE unionization drive.

Even though the report contained few surprises, Heroux said it was important for well-respected researchers to carry out an investigation and carefully consider the evidence before drawing any conclusions or making any recommendations.

He said the report will now be distributed to numerous social service agencies, workers and politicians around the city to further their understanding of what happened.

In spite of petitions, demonstrations and a public meeting to convince Neighbourhood Link to reinstate Heroux, the soft-spoken activist said his former supervisor, Street Health management and its Board of Directors have steadfastly refused to meet to discuss the situation.

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) organizer John Clarke quickly dismissed the notion that the clash between Heroux’s supporters and Street Health and Neighbourhood Link was merely attributable to philosophical differences that led to an offbeat approach to working with homeless and poor members of the community.

“The transfer of services was detrimental to the community,” said Clarke. “There’s nothing refined or abstract about it.”

Clarke claimed that what’s happened at Street Health is part of an overall pattern whereby the provision of social services is being “corporatized” around the city.

“That’s affected a lot of agencies in particular ways and it’s affected Street Health with particular sharpness,” he said. “So there will no longer be readily available adaptable services to meet the needs of communities.”

That’s created a lot of tension between Street Health and the community that Clarke believes “has not yet played itself out.”

In other communities, where agencies have taken a “conservative” approach, residents have challenged the new direction and won. In the meantime, Street Health clients have confirmed that obtaining ID now is harder, bureaucratic, and a mess.

So then how does the community pressure Street Health and Neighbourhood Link to change?

Clarke believes that the clients themselves can have the most impact on altering the approach of the two agencies.

“By no means is the fight over,” he said. “This is not a community that is reconciled to being walked all over. Street Health is part of this community and it’s not going to become a faceless, pitiless bureaucracy that joins the other side, without a considerable fight.”

Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) co-founder and long time activist Cathy Crowe was one of the first nurses employed at Street Health over twenty years ago.

“In those days, the purpose of Street Health was to listen to the community,” said Crowe, speaking to a crowd of over 300. “So when things were developing like TB or bed bugs, we were pushed by folks like you to do something.”

A community that is still reeling from the loss of over 200 shelter beds and countless meal programs is still struggling with the loss of Heroux and ID services.

Report co-authours Herman Rosenfeld, Anna Willats and Irina Ceric investigated Heroux’s firing from Neighbourhood Link and the effect of relocating the administrative side of ID services (not the ID clinics) to Scarborough.

“The administrative work that Gaetan did wasn’t just keeping records and papers,” said Rosenfeld. “It was a space where people had access to talk to him about their issues.”

Neighbourhood link claimed that they were consolidating all their administrative work in Scarborough. But Heroux was the only ID worker who was moved.

They also claimed that Heroux needed supervision so he was moved out of the neighbourhood. That’s odd considering Heroux had worked on his own for over 10 years and his co-workers operated independently too.

“This report gives the advocates and the friends of Street Health something to take forward to the broader community…so they can understand what’s really going on,” said Kathy Hardill, a former Street Health executive director.

“It’s utterly fallacious (of Street Health) to say that nothing has changed…when a hugely valuable resource in Gaetan Heroux no longer works in this neighbourhood. Homeless people often need their ID quickly. They now have an onerous set of hoops that they must jump through to get their ID so they can get their welfare cheques, get into treatment, get shelter or get housing.”

After the rally in Allan Gardens, Heroux led a march to Street Health where he spoke about how much he wanted to return to the community he’s worked in for over 20 years.

“I’d rather be dealing with ID than putting up posters against Street Health on these streets,” said Heroux. “So come out Laura Cowan and let’s talk.”

(Cowan is the executive director of Street Health.)

So far, all of Heroux’s attempts to resolve this issue have been met with silence. But he promised to mobilize the community for the Street Health Annual General Meeting in June to hold management and the board accountable.

Heroux finished his speech, saying he ever thought he would see a day that police, who blocked the entrance to Street Health, would be protecting an agency that he had worked in for ten years.

“I never thought that would happen,” he said. “My understanding is that Laura called the cops…was worried about what would happen today.”

Click here to see photos from the rally and march.

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