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Bill Bosworth: Game-changer

August 23, 2011

Like most of us who work in housing, I’m still reeling from the news of Bill Bosworth’s sudden death last Thursday morning. How could someone so full of life die? And how can someone whose life was so bound up in the future not be there to enjoy it?

Bill Bosworth did change the future. I first heard Bill in the early 1980s, speaking at a United Church event for people who wanted to “do something” about housing. He spoke with a passionate intensity that put our lukewarm concern to shame.

Bill’s big idea was that homelessness was the result of a lack of affordable housing, and that “treating homelessness with hostels is like treating cancer with aspirin.”

It seems obvious now. But back then, we didn’t really have a concept of homelessness. The reigning concept was Skid Road – a place where old drunks and young druggies lived, and well-meaning people offered shelter and tried to sober them up.

(I later read that Bill exploded the “drunk and homeless” myth simply by asking a downtown hostel’s front-desk staff to record whether the men coming to the door were drunk, had something to drink, or had nothing at all to drink. Of the 120 men served, a maximum of 38 had anything to drink and only 3 were drunk.)

A new way of thinking

Bill was part of the Single Displaced Persons Project, a network of downtown church workers and others who recognized that simply pouring money into downtown services wasn’t working. We needed money, of course. But we also needed a new way of thinking.

That thinking led to some brave choices. The Fred Victor hostel acknowledged their residents were not just passing through, and changed their policies to accommodate long-term stays. A few years later, they were replacing their hostel with permanent homes.

It also led to the founding of the Homes First Society – 20 years before “Housing First” became a catchphrase. The next time I heard Bill speak, he was proudly displaying plans for Homes First’s Third House — a “stack of rooming houses” in a beautifully designed building. As Bill said, “Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to look poor.’”

Fast forward 30 years. These were full years for Bill, working for Homes First, then snapped up by The Housing Company, now part of Toronto Community Housing. He worked on all sorts of projects. Some I knew about, such as the difficult task of leading Don Mount Court’s redevelopment. Some I discovered only when I googled his name before writing this entry. Do you remember the Coxwell Stables “jewel” I described in my last entry? I just saw a CMHC profile that named Bill as the project lead. Who knew?

A visionary pragmatist

There is a lot one could say about Bill the man: his kindness, his acerbic wit (he was a really funny guy), his “light up the world” smile. He loved Algonquin and Toronto; good talk and gadgetry. Most of all, I think of his proud enjoyment of his son and daughter, and his true radiant love for his wife Joan.

But Bill’s great gift to housing was that he was both a visionary and a pragmatist. Google him and see how often he was speaking out and conferences and forums. He just loved hearing about new ideas for seemingly insoluble problems. But he was also a man with statistics under his arm and a pro forma in his back pocket. He could talk the big talk, but he had the facts behind him.

So it is fitting that his last job, started only last May at the Social Housing Services Corporation, was titled “Senior Manager, Research and Practice.” And on the morning he died, he was preparing for a forum on sector revitalization.

Bill Bosworth: Life changer

Bill changed the housing world. He also changed my life.

It happened at the Closing Plenary of the 2009 Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association conference. The plenary was called “Our past. Our future” and we had just heard a panel of respected housing veterans speak wisely and well.

Then Bill approached the microphone. He said, “I have worked in social housing for 30 years, and I have been proud to be part of this social justice movement. But the question I want to ask – and the question the panel didn’t answer — is, “What is the vision that will take us into the next 30 years.”

The crowd burst into applause. And in that moment I knew that this was exactly the question the social housing sector must answer. And I knew I wanted to drop everything to help find that answer. This blog is part of that quest.

Housing colleagues:

The day after Bill died, I was pouring out his life story to my 22-year-old daughter. She listened and then quietly said, “Pick up the torch, Mom. You’ve got to.”

I said, “I know.” And now so do you.

Bill’s life will be celebrated at a funeral on Wednesday, August 24th, 2 pm at the Church of the Holy Trinity (beside the Eaton Centre). Online condolences are being received here.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Deborah Hierlihy permalink
    August 23, 2011 10:12 am

    Thank you Joy for this tribute to Bill during this week of loss.

  2. August 23, 2011 10:13 am

    Thanks Joy for this!
    I never had the pleasure of meeting Bill but knowing the impact he has had on people like Michael Shapcott, Debra Dineen and others, your tribute explains the deep impression he has left on so many.
    The best way to memorialize his life is, as your daughter observed, to pick up the torch and run with it; to advocate and illuminate with even more tenacity involving people from as wide a spectrum as possible.

  3. Joe Deschênes Smith permalink
    August 23, 2011 10:39 am

    Bill will be missed.

    I had the pleasure of “debating” Bill at the ONPHA conference a couple of years ago for what they called ” The Great Affordable Home Ownership Debate” Ended up we agreed on more things then not, but it was an informed and passionate exchange and I will remember Bill fondly because of it.

  4. Jean Stevenson permalink
    August 23, 2011 10:44 am

    Joy – this is an extremely beautifully written eulogy and tribute to Bill’s life and accomplishments.

    I know that this is a great gift to his family- for them to have and cherish now and in the years to come.

    And it is a great gift to the social housing sector – to be reminded of the important roles that individuals like Bill played in its growth and evolution and a call that the torch needs to be picked up by many (such as yourself) in ” finding a vision that will take us into the next 30 years”.

    Thank you for the important work you are doing through your blog.

  5. Derek Ballantyne permalink
    August 23, 2011 11:36 am

    I had the great pleasure in working, playing, arguing and dreaming with Bill. In all that he did he was centered by a set of deep values that never wavered, and a commitment to the value of affordable housing for people and places. He was imaginative, engaging and very supportive of others. And he spoke truth to power. I will remember him everytime I pass by one of the many of the affordable housing projects he had a hand in, or contribute to the organizations he helped found and sustain.

  6. debra dineen permalink
    August 23, 2011 11:58 am

    Bill will be deeply missed. I remember when we were first planning the Regent Park revitalization and he sat at our table, he was always aware that the residents needed to have as much power and control over the process as did the housing company or developers. His conversations with us away from the tables, ensured we had as much knowledge as we needed to make decisions. I have always been impressed with his compassion for low income people and for those experiencing homelessness and his quest for more affordable housing!

  7. David Hulchanski permalink
    August 23, 2011 12:57 pm

    It is indeed very sad to loose Bill. 

    From the start of the 1970s housing crises he provided leadership and the clearest insights, explanations, and policies.

    His knowledge was rooted in both the daily lived realities of what life is like for those without adequate housing and in the careful research and analysis of causes and solutions.

    The RESOURCES section of this blog has a file called “Bill Bosworth 1980s” and a copy of the report he co-authored in 1983, The Case for Long-Term Supportive Housing.

    His clarity on the issues and his fighting spirit comes across in the several newspaper articles in the “Bill Bosworth 1980s” file.


    Globe and Mail, Feb.1986: “Building more hostels, Mr. Bosworth said, is like “pouring money down a sink hole,” adding that more funds should be spent on permanent housing.”

    Globe and Mail, Dec. 1988: “In Ontario, where the Toronto housing crisis is forcing people into desperate situations, the federal government’s move means 1,300 fewer rental units than were promised,” William Bosworth, a spokesman for Election Agenda on Canadian Housing, said yesterday. “Where is the Tory commitment to ending homelessness? During the election campaign, Brian Mulroney said ‘one homeless person in Canada is too many,’ ” he said.”

    The1983 report is one of the earliest and the very best statements of the emerging problem and what should be done. 

    “This report has been written … to offer a deeper and better-informed analysis of homelessness and to propose the provision of long-term, supportive housing as an alternative strategy to the provision of emergency shelter. As directors, board members and staff of social service agencies and as clergy of downtown churches, we have been working together since 1974 to respond to the poverty, marginalization and personal problems of the men and women of the inner city who are at the bottom of our social and economic systems. In this report, we use the deeper understanding gained through this experience to make the case for long-term, supportive housing.”

    Bill and I had plans to get together to discuss these issues, past and present — though we kept putting it off.  There is always too much to do.


    J. David Hulchanski,
         Associate Director for Research, Cities Centre
         Professor, Housing & Community Development, Faculty of Social Work
    University of Toronto

  8. August 23, 2011 4:59 pm

    Bill was far ahead of his time. I was lucky to serve with him on the Houselink Board in the 1980’s. The vision that he brought to creating the first building for Homes First, was forward thinking. Not many people were connecting the issues of homelessness with the need for permanent affordable housing.
    I can still hear Bill’s voice at the many consultations that the Ministry of Housing held in those days. When he spoke, we all listened.. My deepest sympathies to his family.
    This is a huge loss to the non profit housing sector.

    Tom Clement, Executive Director, Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto

  9. Debbie Barton permalink
    August 23, 2011 8:44 pm

    Tonight I was out in my garden working and my mind wandered to thinking about Bill … and I began to think about how the housing scene that we know so well… it just won’t be the same without him …Though not a close friend of Bill’s and not from Toronto, I met Bill many years ago, probably at an ONPHA event. Bill was the kind of person you just naturally sought out and wanted to be around. He was thoughtful and engaging, funny and had a big, warm embracing smile. He was passionate and deeply committed to housing and especially to the people. I will truly miss hanging out with Bill…

    Debbie Barton

  10. Debbie Kraus permalink
    August 23, 2011 10:48 pm

    I too am so sad about the passing of Bill. He always saw right to the heart of the issues! He was also a wonderful friend to ONPHA right from the start (in 1988) and was key to building a strong foundation of trust among the municipal and community-based non-profits. Thanks Joy for your tribute and for providing the opportunity to share.

  11. Robin Campbell permalink
    August 24, 2011 4:24 am

    Thank-you, Joy, for capturing so completely what I feel about Bill. It is colleuges like Bill who made my experience working in the non-profit housiing sector so powerful and inspiring. And as I read everyone’s thoughs about Bill I realize what a family it is and how much our family will miss Bill.

    In my days at ONPHA, Bill was a person we could always count on. He served on the Board and innumerable committees. I am sure that his name is in every Conferece Program!

    Bill was at once easy going and intense! When an issue was inportant, to him he would not let it go. He was provocative. But with his wide smile, open face and warm mannner, he made everyone feel at ease. He also let us know that we were on the hook: what we were doing was important.

    Thank-you, Bill. We mourn your loss.

  12. Catherine Boucher permalink
    August 24, 2011 7:09 am

    Bill was one of my “constants” in the housing world since the early 80’s. Unwavering in his principles, but always seeking creative solutions. Able to hone in on the elephant in the room. He and I sometimes (often?) argued, which was kind of funny. Like old couples, we’d squabble and then couldn’t remember what the heck we were arguing about. And his beautiful smile, with those crinkly blue eyes shining! Oh, I will miss that for sure.
    The guy understood in his bones why we did this work, why we continue to do this work every year, every day.
    I’m pretending now to believe in the old Christian outcomes and can see Bill and Jack up there discussing what a real housing system could look like.
    Hey guys, send us a sign, will ya?

  13. David Morley permalink
    August 25, 2011 7:17 pm

    Thank you for this, Joy. You’ve captured Bill’s spirit and drive. His humour and compassion make it all the harder to lose him; and all the easier to continue efforts to build a more just city.

  14. David Gero permalink
    August 26, 2011 2:06 pm

    Havi and I used to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, it has a flaw, which we discovered when one of us was sick. In those situations, I like to be left alone, whereas Havi likes to be fussed over. So when she was sick, I would leave her alone, and when I was sick, she would fuss over me. We have since followed the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would like to have done to them. Which means, ask people what kind of help they want before you decide you know what that is better than they do.

    I am struck by the fact that Bill was the great champion of this idea when it came to social housing. Why not involve potential occupants and their insights into the project design right from the start? What a novel concept!

  15. August 30, 2011 2:30 pm

    We are very grateful for Bill.

  16. August 30, 2011 6:45 pm

    David Walsh asked me to post this emailed comment:

    I remember Bill as a leader in moving forward many housing projects. I appreciated serving on the Fred Victor Board in the 1980’s when Bill, Larry Peterson and Paul Webb were so involved. Their efforts resulted in the initial projects of Homes First – the project at 90 Shuter; two homes for refugees – the one on Spadina and another at Dan & Alice Heap’s former house; and the housing project beside All Saints Church. Our Homes Association started as a project of Homes First and continues today with new housing projects supporting individuals in recovery from mental health and addiction challenges.

    Bill contributed to our city in many ways. His wisdom, compassion and knowledge will be missed. Let’s work to carry forward the legacy he inspired in us.

  17. Margaret Singleton permalink
    September 6, 2011 5:33 pm

    I learned of Bill’s death only a day or two ago and was shocked and saddened. I hadn’t seen Bill for a while, but he was always so full of life. His loss is a major one for the housing sector.

    Everyone’s comments already reflect the work Bill did so well and with such commitment; but no one has mentioned that his work on the Homes First project was very influential in the creation of Options Bytown in Ottawa.

    I first met Bill as one of a small group from Ottawa that visited Homes First, I think in 1983, to learn about what had been achieved there and to see what we could learn as we started to think about developing housing to meet the needs of homeless people in Ottawa. Bill was enormously, and as I later learned, typically helpful and free with his time and expertise. Options Bytown’s creation and approach owes not a little to Bill.

  18. September 7, 2011 8:23 am

    Great post, Joy. I didn’t know Bill, but I find this inspiring.

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