senior citizen at First Nations centre

Founder of Toronto’s Homeless Memorial remembered as great advocate

'She definitely touched a lot of people'

Kerry Briggs speaking at memorial for his wife, Bonnie Briggs. (Neil Powers)

About two hundred people attended a memorial Tuesday, August 8th for the founder of downtown Toronto’s homeless memorial, Bonnie Briggs.  It was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity, next to Eaton Centre. That church is the site of the Homeless Memorial, which Briggs, 64, founded in 1997.   

Briggs died at her Parkdale home on August 4.  She had been watching television with her husband, Kerry Briggs, when she slumped over and died.

“Bonnie simply worked harder than anyone I know to end homelessness and get housing built,”  said nurse and homeless activist Cathy Crowe, in a message to the Toronto Observer the day after the memorial. “She did the work from many angles: trying to get ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) rates increased, fighting for more shelters, insisting on documenting the tragic deaths due to homelessness and then trying to get tiny homes built.”

Briggs’s activism went back to the 1980s. She had been homeless, herself, and believed no one should be without a home. Recently she was organizing a group around “tiny homes” and trying to get a meeting with Toronto Mayor John Tory to pitch the idea as one remedy to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

Briggs was known for mixing music with her activism. One man who had attended the memorial, Jesse Ovadia, used to play music with Briggs, including performances at political protests.

“Bonnie and I drummed together in Samba Elegua and Rhythms of Resistance (a samba-style band) for almost a decade,” he said. “She is deeply missed by people in both bands. She definitely touched a lot of people.” 

For street nurse Cathy Crowe, Briggs had credibility.

“Her work was important because, she never forgot she had been homeless. So that was humbling because people would listen to her passion about how that should never, ever happen to someone,” added Crowe. “She did her work from a place of extreme poverty, literally, but with a richness of spirit that people admired and were inspired from.”

Organizers added 46 names of homeless people who died to the Homeless Memorial on the church in the first six-months of 2017.  That takes the total number of names to over 850. The initial list goes back to 1985-1986, when the first five persons’ names were added.

A public gathering at the Homeless Memorial is held on the second Tuesday of each month, at noon, where new names are added.  The monthly event takes place outside of Church of the Holy Trinity, just west of Eaton Centre.

Kerry Briggs, who married Bonnie in 1983, spoke at his wife’s memorial service. Later, he described her to the Observer. “She was really devoted to what she did (for homelessness),” he said. “Once she got devoted to something, there was nothing else.”

When asked what he thought was his late wife’s proudest accomplishment was, he thought for a few moments, then had an answer.

“It would be the Homeless Memorial,” he said.  He described it as “the fly in the ointment” because it presents an imperfect picture of Toronto, reminding the public that people are dying while homeless.

There will be a special service celebrating the life of Bonnie Briggs on September 10 from 2-5 p.m. at Church of the Holy Trinity.