Posted August 8, 2017
The woman who first suggested Toronto needs a standing memorial for homeless people who die on its streets was honoured at the memorial Tuesday.
Bonnie Briggs, a housing activist and poet who was 64, died suddenly Friday at her Parkdale home.
Formerly homeless herself, Briggs was loved by people fighting homelessness and poverty in the city, who saw her and her husband Kerry Briggs join years of meetings, rallies, marches and memorials on homelessness or housing.
“You worked harder than anyone I know to end homelessness,” Cathy Crowe, a fellow activist and street nurse, wrote to Briggs on Saturday.
The Brampton-born woman got the idea for a memorial in the late 1980s while in St. James’ Park, a downtown green space where, then as now, many homeless people stay.
She had been to Toronto City Hall and saw it had memorials to firefighters, police and other people who died on the job.
Why not have one for the homeless too?
The first names started to grace the memorial in 1997.
“We never dreamed that there would be 850 names on it, and it would still be up 20 years later,” Kerry said on Sunday. “We thought the government would get off its ass.”
At first, Briggs wanted the memorial at the park, but Kerry believed it’s now perfectly situated at Church of the Holy Trinity, beside the Eaton Centre.
The memorial, he said, is a tombstone, “a glaring reminder” citizens and their governments haven’t done enough.
“We’re too polite,” Kerry said. “We don’t have the public will we used to have.”
Kerry was homeless five times; Bonnie was homeless with him twice, in 1987 and 1989.
Vacancies in the city were scarce. Kerry had a full-time warehouse job in 1987, but their landlord sold their apartment to a buyer who wanted a whole house for himself.
They landed on the street, sleeping in parked cars and stairwells, sometimes living in cheap motels. Crowe wrote about the Briggs in a book, Dying For a Home.
Bonnie lived in Maple when they met at a dance in Kleinburg in 1982. She was wearing “kind of a granny gown” and looked “totally different from anybody else there,” Kerry said. By October, they were living together. They stuck together, her husband said, because they had been through so much.
Privately, he said, Bonnie would bemoan things weren’t moving fast enough. Still, the couple kept speaking up publicly because they felt they had to.
Both felt the solutions to homelessness were right in front of people’s eyes — like the “tiny houses” of Trenton Terrace in Parkdale — or could be found in action in other places of the world.
“But a lot of people didn’t listen to us,” Kerry said.
On Friday, Briggs and Kerry were home watching Jeopardy. Briggs had health problems and installed a pacemaker four years ago. She dozed off, and her head slumped over. Her skin went suddenly cold. She didn’t make it to a hospital.
Briggs will be honoured and remembered Tuesday during a service at the memorial which starts at noon. Kerry will be there.
News of Brigg’s death brought tributes from organizations for which she had worked, including Toronto ACORN, which praised her as a leader and activist “known across the country.”
“She is an inspiration that will never be forgotten by ACORN. We will fight and win housing justice for Bonnie,” the advocacy group for low-income people pledged.
Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo said she was devastated by the news.
Toronto councillors Sarah Doucette and Gord Perks also posted about Briggs. Perks called her a hero in the housing movement.
“Bonnie has been a part of every movement I’ve been a part of since I moved to Toronto,” a friend, Brian Burch, said on Facebook.
“She cared about individuals — all too rare and yet essential in building a better world.”
Article by Mike Adler for the Toronto Star