In These Times

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

By Cathy Crow

When I graduated from Ryerson in 1985 (Nursing), I felt optimistic and well equipped to face any challenge. I knew I would be heading to work in inner city Toronto, the 'third world' that can no longer be kept invisible. I never expected it to be easy. From day one, the challenges included working in communities facing poverty, homelessness, hunger and violence. But over the last 12 years, the world of community work has changed drastically.

I have watched as all levels of government have eroded Canada's social safety net and the values inherent to social justice that community workers took for granted. Without a doubt, the Mike Harris Ontario government takes the prize for most damage to the most number of people in the shortest amount of time.

To be a community worker these days means not only doing one-on-one work, but also speaking out about the damage that we see inflicted upon people we work with, while at the same time working to create solutions. In Ontario, the impact of the government's 21.6% welfare cuts on families, the escalating deaths of homeless people, intolerable hostel conditions, and the return of tuberculosis are some of the urgent issues frontline workers are dealing with.

Meanwhile, committees, reports and research now catalogue the "impact of the cuts," but this lengthy analysis, albeit necessary, borders on "intellectualizing" the brutality being done to actual people. And for some reason, microscopic attention is being paid to these issues in the media.

Many health centres, drop-in centres and shelters have lost all or a significant amount of their funding in the last two years. Many no longer exist in their original form and many workers have been laid off, had their work reduced, lost benefits, or have had to take on other jobs. In the meantime, their primary workload has continued to rise, in some cases doubling.

Front line workers are not only doing more, but witnessing more serious situations. The number of deaths, for example, that workers respond to is without precedent, as the number of police shootings, freezing deaths, infant deaths, and suicides escalate in the inner city. Workers can be traumatized by events in their work lives.

Not surprisingly, sick time is higher, more front-line workers are experiencing depression and grief, and relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol. At the same time, workers often put in 14-hour days, respond to crises on their days off, and increasingly act as social supports for their clients and families. They use more of their own personal resources, including money, to assist their clients and their struggling agencies, all the while facing financial insecurity of their own. And most front-line workers in the poverty field do not have a union, full benefit plans, or an expense account.

Equally serious is the code of silence now imposed on workers. Fearing more funding cuts, many community agencies have created public relations policies that prohibit staff, who were once vocal critics, from speaking to the media. Several downtown workers were issued warnings from their employer for attending a public protest on their own time. This has left many front line workers feeling powerless and complicit with the very government they view as causing the desperate conditions they face daily.

As frontline workers, we need to discuss these and other important issues that face us. As daily witnesses to the misery that is being perpetrated in the name of balanced budgets, we must find ways to strengthen the voices that speak out on issues of social justice.

Cathy Crowe, RN, is a street nurse.