A Nightmare of Homelessness: A Knapsack Full of Dreams

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1880 ... August 21, 2019
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A Nightmare of Homelessness: A Knapsack Full of Dreams

John Clarke

Cathy Crowe’s book A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse comes out of decades of witnessing and challenging a growing blight of destitution and poverty in Toronto that has developed with the advance of the neoliberal agenda. In writing this review, I should make clear that I have known Cathy for a good part of that time, and in my years as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) have dealt with her as an ally, tackling the same issues and confronting the same injustices. We have worked in different organizations and sometimes taken significantly different approaches, but a sense of common purpose has always existed. Doubtless, my appraisal of her book will reflect this.

Cathy’s role and focus are very much reflected in the term by which she describes herself, that of Street Nurse. As she mentions, this label stuck after "a homeless man across the street yelled out in a jovial manner, ‘Hey, Street Nurse’" (p.125).... He was respectfully incorporating her into the ‘street family’ he was part of, but there are other elements to Cathy’s role that go beyond this. Her mother was a nurse who, in her time, came up against the "patriarchal origins of the organizational control of nurses" (p.55). Cathy found herself dealing with this same system of control, linked as it is to an effort to prevent nurses from speaking out against the social injustices they deal with in their work. At the heart of Cathy’s career has been a commitment to "a new nursing movement in Canada composed of politicized nurses" (p.55). I have no doubt that she would agree that this effort is, as yet, a work in progress and that nurses and other health providers who confront injustice still swim against the stream. When he was Mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford put things very clearly with his blunt assertion that "[d]octors should not be advocates for the poor."

Homelessness and other glaring injustices in this society are ever present considerations in the book. However, it is not by any means an attempt to present a complete history of the development of the homeless crisis or the struggles that have been taken up in the face of it. Nor, for that matter, is it a comprehensive autobiography. Cathy’s memoirs tackle themes, draw from events and identify many of the people, historical moments and works of art, especially films, that have inspired and shaped her. The very title of the book is taken from a National Film Board film on the life of one of Canadian social democracy’s leading figures, Tommy Douglas, in which it is suggested that he was "a travelling salesman of sorts with a suitcase full of dreams" (p.23).

What comes through in Cathy’s book, with great force and considerable clarity, is her deep compassion for people facing an incredible and needless assault on their health and emotional well being in the form of homelessness. There is no hyperbole in her reference to "third-world conditions in our cities" (p.157) because the formulation comes from years of experience on the front lines dealing with the worst this neoliberal city has to offer. While her outrage is largely focused on the impacts of homelessness, a wide range of societal injustices lead her to seek a means to challenge them. "I think it’s no accident that my awakenings around peace, disarmament and feminism occurred simultaneously," she concludes (p.81).

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