Homeless men freezing to death. An emerging tuberculosis scare. Tent City. In life as a street nurse, Cathy Crowe has confronted some big issues — such as tent city — and smaller ones, such as discrimination against Toronto’s homeless community. This was certainly not what she expected when she started as a street nurse some 23 years ago.
Crowe’s street nursing career began after she was hired in 1988 by Street Health, an organization helping Toronto’s homeless population.
“Originally much of the job focused on people with serious health problems worsened by the fact that they were homeless,” says Crowe. “So you’d have somebody admitted to hospital but then they’d be discharged once treated and back to the street or shelter. There was this never-ending cycle.”
Despite frustrations such as that, she was fuelled by the thought of working on a problem that was ultimately fixable.
“We always talked about what the solution was and it’s so within grasp within this country to solve it,” she says. “So I stayed. I think nurses working in the area of cancer or diabetes feel the same way. They know what the good outcome can be if the right things are done.”
While she spent more than two decades helping the homeless population directly as a street nurse, today her work is more focused in the area of homelessness advocacy.
She’s the volunteer executive director of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, which she helped found in 1998. She’s taught a course on Homelessness in Canada at Ryerson University, co-authored Dying for a Home and is currently involved in a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge in the rights to housing.
Last year, she also ran as the provincial NDP candidate for Toronto Centre after Liberal MPP George Smitherman stepped down.
Still, she keeps a hand in nursing by training others. “Nursing students are clamouring for jobs in this field, which was not the case 20 years ago. I’m contacted by students almost daily during the school year,” says Crowe, who is also the grandmother of three young grandsons. To extend that training, she also travels throughout Ontario teaching nurses about the job.
“Ultimately I would like to see that this profession isn’t needed. It’s hard to imagine that right now, so I’d really like to see politicians spend more time resolving the problem of homelessness or professional organizations really support the advocacy work being done,” she says. “Because otherwise we’re just going to be stuck doing healthcare out of a van and finding people in the Don Valley.”