Giving a voice to the vulnerable

Dorran Grant and Maryan Osman, as board members of the Atkinson Housing Co-Op, are helping Toronto youth avoid a life of drugs and crime. (AARON LYNETT / TORONTO STAR)

Laurie Monsebraaten

July 12 2008

Connie Harrison and Stacey Bowen were more than faces in the crowd when about 500 social justice activists packed a Queen’s Park meeting room in April to tell the provincial government how to fight poverty. They were experts.

As two of Ontario’s 1.3 million people living in poverty, they brought first-hand knowledge of life on the street, without money to pay rent or to buy food.

And as graduates of Voices from the Street, a program that provides leadership training to people with histories of homelessness and poverty, their participation was both poignant and pointed.

Children’s Minister Deb Matthews, head of the provincial cabinet committee charged with drafting a poverty reduction strategy for Ontario, was clearly moved.

“I’m listening and I appreciate the courage it takes to tell your stories,” she told the gathering.

It couldn’t have happened without the support of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, said Voices facilitator Pat Capponi, who has steered 38 graduates through the 12-week program in the past three years and who has also experienced poverty due to mental illness. Participants were paid $60 a week.

In addition to enlightening politicians, graduates of the program have met with young doctors to educate them about mental illness and have spoken at community meetings. Last Tuesday, a delegation met privately with Matthews.

In the Queen St. W. offices of the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre last week, the excitement – and expectations – of Voices graduates was palpable.

“It has given us a place at the table, a chance to be players, not just tokens, like in the past when we were simply given (subway) tokens for our efforts,” said Harrison, 53.

“Voices has helped us see ourselves as participants, not just as recipients of social assistance,” added Bowen, 47, a single mother who has battled drug addiction and is raising two teenaged daughters on welfare. “The confidence-building has been amazing.

“If you have low self-esteem, you can’t do anything. But when you find out who you really are and what you can do, it’s a beautiful thing,” said the diminutive dynamo, who lives at Alexandra Park Co-op, near Dundas St. W. and Bathurst St.

Bowen, who graduated last month, hopes to use her new leadership skills to build more community spirit at the housing co-op.

Harrison, who said her activism was part rant, part comedy before she took the course last year, said she has learned how to pull her punches and make every word count.

“You have to move beyond making people laugh,” she said. “You have to make them think. You have to get beyond people’s disgust for the crack addict and get them to ask how they got there and what can be done to help them get out.”

Harrison has battled her own demons born from an abusive childhood. Mental illness, alcoholism and a series of failed marriages landed her in a shelter and then a bug-infested public housing unit in St. James Town, where she is now suing her landlord for her deplorable living conditions.

In addition to becoming an advocate for decent public housing, Harrison turned her talents to the streets to help homeless women feel better about themselves by giving them free makeovers. The project was featured on CBC radio and the BBC.

“Many women are scared to go out into the community because of how they look,” said Harrison, a former Sunshine Girl. “I started to look after my own appearance after Voices. And I had the extra money to buy decent clothes. Now I can go into any store and not feel ashamed.”

In Kensington Market, Dorran Grant, 20 and Maryan Osman, 18, talk about changing their corner of the world as recently elected board members for the Atkinson Housing Co-op, a community where too many youth are sucked into drugs and crime.

“Youth didn’t have any say in anything,” said Grant, who is working as a security guard and hopes to attend college or university in January. “Adults did what they thought was best for us. Adults didn’t take the time to understand what we needed. We want to change that.”

More programs for girls is a message Osman hears as a part-time basketball coach and director of the co-op’s summer camp program, which serves 65 kids between the ages of 6 and 12.

Osman and Grant were among five young people under 22 elected to the nine-member board last winter in what Toronto Co-op Housing Federation head Tom Clement calls “nothing short of a revolution.”

A $40,000 grant from the Atkinson foundation really lit the spark, said Clement.

The money helped create a community outreach team to recruit youth to run for the board and to get out the vote by knocking on doors in the 410-unit townhouse/apartment complex, he said.

“There is a sense that this community can really be a better place. Young people have really embraced that, both as leaders and as voting members.”

Out on the co-op’s basketball court, former area resident Marvin Morris, 22, coaches a group of 10- to 12-year-old boys who are part of the community summer camp.

“They are really setting an example for these younger guys,” he said, motioning to Osman and Grant. “They know that if Doran can do it, if Maryan can do it, they can do it. These young guys are the future.”

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott