Street Health: A Story of Hope and Possibility

This is the story of Street Health. A story that many have helped make possible. 

Street Heath nurse provides outreach

It was 1986 when a diverse team of four nurses came together for the first time. Although each nurse came from a different background, they shared a passion and vision for improving the lives of homeless people in Toronto. For three years they volunteered their time and energy running a "low-tech” nursing clinic in the Toronto Friendship Centre drop-in at Dundas and Sherbourne streets. 

Then, through some savvy political advocacy, the provincial government awarded funding for this fledgling agency in 1989. The Street Health Community Nursing Foundation was officially born. 

Those early days at Street Health were challenging. A small office space in the basement of the church provided less than ideal working conditions. Yet the Street Health nurses maintained their passion for their work--attempting to meet the needs of a very impoverished community.

The original Street Health Report released in 1992 outlined the severity of the health problems and living conditions of homeless people in Toronto. The report helped Street Health to focus its efforts and provided valuable data to support its advocacy efforts.

You may remember 1995 as a watershed year for the less advantaged in Ontario. The government of Premier Mike Harris made dramatic cuts to social assistance rates and removed the restrictions on rent increases. It was a period of rising evictions and increased homelessness. Our determined nurses and advocates persevered. It soon became impossible for the city and the province to deny the homelessness issue. Street Health received funding to move to a larger space at 338 Dundas Street East, where we now reside.

It was around this time that Laura Cowan, Executive Director of Street Health, joined the team. Laura came to Street Health as a nurse. She remembers with some sadness the clients she has provided services to over the years. 

"Some of the clients I met 15 years ago are still around, coming to nursing clinics and dropping in regularly to our office to say hello,” Laura says. "Others have moved on. They have battled their demons and won. I still hear from one or two ex-clients on a regular basis. They like to call to say hi and check in. Maybe it's a reminder to them of how far they have come and they remember that Street Health was a part of that journey”.

As the client base and services grew at Street Health, so did acknowledgement by funders that our services were necessary for the many people who were now homeless or under-housed. The Ministry of Health provided the funding to eventually purchase the property at 338 Dundas Street in 2000. Fundraising began in earnest at that time and with the help of many generous donors we continued to more easily meet the emerging needs in this vulnerable and growing community.

client on a bike street health

Through its 25 years, Street Health has undergone massive growth and change. In 1997 we added case workers to our staff in order to address the countless people struggling with mental health issues. In 1999 we introduced the first identification replacement program that we know of in Canada. In 2003 the ID Safe program was added, so homeless people have a place to store the important identification documents that were often being lost or stolen.

Although a relatively popular premise today, "harm reduction” as an approach to working with people who use illicit drugs was embraced by Street Health in its early days. It is still seen as a way to help people live healthier lives. Street Health was among the first agencies in downtown Toronto to distribute clean needles to injection drug users. In 2004, the Crack Users Project was introduced. The goal of this groundbreaking program was to reduce the harms associated with the use of crack cocaine.

At Street Health we feel strongly that providing programs and services alone will not alleviate the hardships experienced by those who live on the margins. We have proudly participated in many of the milestones in the war against poverty in Ontario. In 1996, our staff participated in a public inquiry into a freezing death of three homeless men in Toronto. Some of the recommendations made to the jury were later adopted by the City of Toronto. Our involvement in Toronto Disaster Relief Coalition helped push the municipal government to declare homelessness a National Disaster in 2001. With this declaration came an immediate flow of federal funding for services across the country for those who are homeless. In July of 2001 Street Health was recognized for our ground breaking efforts by being the lead agency for the first National Harm Reduction Conference. Again in 2007, a follow-up Street Health Report was conducted and has been used across the country as an education and advocacy tool.

<p">Today there are numerous services in Toronto that are geared toward helping the homeless. But Street Health was one of the first and remains focused on individual client values and needs. We will continue to stay true to our roots by advocating for those less fortunate by raising issues related to housing and health and by providing a compassionate place for people to turn. This is our role in the community - this is what people have come to expect from Street Health. No one could have guessed that those four nurses so long ago would start a powerful movement that is Street Health today.