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University Advancement | October 2019  


In conversation with Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe and the cover of her latest book, A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse.

Cathy Crowe’s (Nursing ‘85) new book A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse provides an inside look at her 30-year career as a street nurse and advocate for the homeless.
Photo: Lisa MacIntosh.


Shining a light on one of the country’s darkest issues is a Ryerson alumna with a big voice, massive heart and strong will to see and inspire change.

Meet Cathy Crowe (Nursing ‘85), best known as Toronto’s “street nurse.” For the past 30 years, Cathy has been a fierce and tireless advocate for the city’s homeless. She has taken action to speak out about issues including the protection of Tent City and its residents, horrific conditions in shelters and, most recently, climate change, by rallying alongside more than 15,000 people in the Toronto climate march. Her tenacity and passion have led to her being named to the Order of Canada and recognized by her alma mater with an Alumni Achievement Award. Now, Cathy has a new book — A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse — that gives an inside look at her journey.

We recently caught up with Cathy — who now also works as a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner in the Faculty of Arts — to get her perspective on finding a platform, taking a stand and staying hopeful.


How did you come to adopt the title of “street nurse,” and what does the job entail?

Over 30 years ago, a homeless guy hollered across the street, “Hey, street nurse!” People often use the term “street brother” or “street sister” or “street parent” to refer to somebody that might not be their biological relative, and he was referring to myself and colleagues who worked at a nursing clinic for homeless people. Street nurses might have another title in their work, such as community health nurse, but in common is the fact that they are providing health care to people who are homeless or precariously housed.


Your mom was an emergency room nurse. So, why street nursing?

All the pieces just came together. There you are, meeting these amazing people who had jobs and had families, and there they are now, sitting in a drop-in centre on church pews all day long because they had been kicked out of their shelter and everything they own is in a bag they’re carrying around.

The community health centres I worked at over the years promoted the idea of looking upstream and focusing on the issues — not just doing the bandages and foot soaks and dealing with illness, but really trying to shift things.


How did your time at Ryerson help you find your voice?

When I was a nursing student at Ryerson, I found my voice not around homelessness, but about the environment and the threat of nuclear war. I came together with others and learned how to write a press release, put together a demonstration, speak to radio and lobby a politician. When I began doing homeless health care and street nursing, those same things applied. It all goes back to my mom, who always spoke out. I was very shy and introverted growing up, but when it came down to having to deal with a patient or people that I was working with, the nurse just came out of me!


Is there any particular project you’ve participated in that has stuck with you to this day?

I helped lead “disaster tours,” which we could only do once in a while and only strategically. We would take out the social justice reporter from The Globe and Mail, or Jack Layton when he was city councillor, or David Miller when he was newly mayor, and stay out until 2 a.m. showing them the many aspects of homelessness. That really changed their perspective on what they needed to do. When I came back to Ryerson as a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner, I adapted that into social justice and community health walks that I’d do with students. 


You compiled your stories into an incredible new book, A Knapsack Full of Dreams: Memoirs of a Street Nurse. What is the significance behind the title?

The Canadian politician Tommy Douglas, who is considered the father of Medicare, was described as having a suitcase full of dreams. My black knapsack — that was actually my outreach bag and it carried medical supplies, sometimes food…a bunch of things. There’s a graphic of it on one of the first pages of the book. Tommy’s dream was about more than just Medicare; it was about good schools, good roads and funding for educational programs, so that’s how I connected it to my knapsack. My knapsack is full of dreams and it’s about housing for people, but also about good healthcare, jobs and having hope.


What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn about activism and its intricacies?

It’s really important to find the right people that you can strategize with — that you know you can trust, who know the issue and care about it, and who are creative and will complement you.


What do you see as the biggest issue in the Canadian homelessness crisis right now, and how can people take action?

The biggest issue is that we do not have a fully-funded national housing program, so that’s one of the things I’m really trying to write about. This federal election is really important on that particular issue. Locally, I want people to know that the conditions around homelessness are now worse than the first year that I became a street nurse — tenfold worse — and people need to know they can have a voice. They should all know who their city councillor, MPP and MP are and be in touch with them regularly, even if it’s by email or Twitter, because they watch those forms of media and it can make a difference.

By Angela McLean, Journalism ’19