Edna Toth leaning against a window

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DENISE MILITZER

Unsung Hero: Octogenarian social justice advocate Edna Toth

Meet the 87-year-old rabble rouser who’s giving a voice to the homeless

Edna Toth recently paid a visit to Knight’s Table, a local soup kitchen in Peel that is supported by United Way. Even though it was during the day, it was spilling with people experiencing homelessness sleeping on the floor trying to get some shut eye before the kitchen closed at 6 p.m.

Although Knight’s Table doesn’t operate as a homeless shelter, the soup kitchen was the only safe place many could find to rest. Currently, there are only two family shelters, two women’s shelters and two men’s shelters operating in Peel Region, despite a 26.9 per cent increase in shelter use. According to the Region of Peel Housing and Homelessness Plan report, local shelters are at capacity and there are insufficient beds for victims of family violence.

Edna Toth sitting in a chair reading a newspaper

Being able to speak for the homeless is exactly why the now 87-year-old Edna launched Tough Times in 2012, a social justice tabloid newspaper currently circulating 10,000 copies six times a year to people in Peel Region, many whom experience homelessness. The most recent issue features an op-ed by Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown on addressing homelessness and a profile of Good Food Brampton, a community kitchen that teaches marginalized young people how to cook while providing free childcare. We asked Edna about what led her to launch Tough Times:

What led you to journalism?
Growing up in England, I was always into writing but I’m not sure I wrote particularly well at that time. The standards weren’t that great. I just went to an ordinary school but I didn’t even finish high school. I was sent off to secretarial college because you had to have the short-hand typing skills to get into the newspaper business. That was 70 years ago. Women tended to marry in their 20s but I didn’t take that route. I came over to Canada when I was in my 20s and got myself a job immediately working at a newspaper in Northern Ontario. Eventually I had four children with my husband, also a journalist.

Edna Toth taking a phone call

What makes Tough Times special?

We are an independent publication and we’re not afraid to say what we think. We aren’t afraid to be political. The advantage of having a very small operation is that I don’t have a boss. It’s nice to have your own thing because you’re not being second guessed by anyone and you can follow your own instincts. After launching the paper with Peel Poverty Action Group, we got a lot of credit for bringing attention to the affordable housing issue. It’s also helpful that the paper is in print, which makes it accessible to our audience who live on the streets.

Edna Toth chopping vegetables in the kitchen

How has Peel changed since you moved to the community in 1968?
The population has expanded dramatically and there are a lot of newcomers, some of whom are living on the streets. There are more and more people staying in soup kitchens. That’s the one place they can go because there are no spaces to sleep in shelters. I’ve noticed that there are more and more people asking for spare change on the streets. I saw a kid begging for a cup of coffee the other day and I asked him “Do you have a place to stay?” He said he did, but that he didn’t have a kitchen or a fridge. How can you make one meal last for two days if you don’t have a kitchen? It’s gotten noticeably worse. There are more people sleeping at Knight’s Table during the day because they are not going to be sleeping at night. Many don’t want to go to shelters but are trapped in poverty. If you don’t have a home, it’s difficult to look half decent if you’re looking for a job.

What makes you love what you do?
We’re representing people who don’t have any opportunity to say anything. They often have nothing. They don’t have a place to speak in except Tough Times. Recently, I was at Knight’s Table and I saw homeless people there I knew from the streets. They were quite enthusiastic about Tough Times and they could see the paper as something that was helping them. We also invite politicians to contribute. In the municipal election, we offered everybody the chance to write about what poverty was like in their area and what they would do about it. We got about 50 responses. I feel that if you get someone to write about poverty, they have to think about it.

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