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Canada’s COVID-19 response is leaving the homeless behind

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Homeless men sit on a stoop in Toronto. Photo by Matthew Gray/Flickr.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dispelled any uncertainties about where Canada’s loyalties lie.

At the onset of the crisis, government bodies quickly implemented preventative measures to stop the disease from tearing through communities and devastating populations. Yet the response to assist Canada’s homeless population has not been so swift, and governments at all levels are still scrambling to heed calls for improved protections to assist one of society’s most vulnerable groups.

At the time of writing, Canada’s efforts to help the homeless stay safe during the pandemic—from providing more funding for shelters, the creation of temporary shelters, and in some places, the opening of hotels to the homeless—have been deemed “too little too late” by many critics.

Canada’s federal response has so far been less concerned with how to help the homeless than remaining preoccupied with preventing homeless people from interacting with the general public. In some provinces, homeless people have even been fined for supposedly flouting spatial distancing rules.

Homelessness continues to be presented as a problem that can only be solved by people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps to rejoin the rest of society. But the pandemic has exposed the small degree of separation between the financial state of the working class and the homeless. As banks and businesses receive massive bailouts, working people are receiving just enough to eke out a living, while the homeless continue to be brushed aside.

It is clear that Canada’s leaders will stop at nothing to keep our fragile capitalist system intact.

A few bad months

Perceptions of homelessness are enabled by many damaging myths. Chief among them is the belief that people become homeless simply due to a lack of effort to either seek work or obtain the skills necessary for gainful employment. As the pandemic shuttered businesses and employees were laid off, however, calls for rent deferrals rang out across Canada, lending credence to the adage that many working class people are just a few bad months away from losing their homes and livelihoods should a crisis strike in their personal lives.

As renters raised concerns over not being able to make payments without a continuous source of income, it became abundantly clear just how many Canadians—about 53 percent—are living paycheck to paycheck. On top of this, 27 percent say they are unable to afford their daily needs, let alone have enough saved up to weather a public health emergency. Luckily, the Canadian government has thrown workers a $2,000 lifeline in the form of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

While hardly enough to survive on in many cases, the CERB offers an eyebrow-raising figure when compared to the supports in place for those who face struggles that might lead to homelessness in normal times. In British Columbia a single employable person on welfare receives $510 per month, a far cry from the $2,000 emergency response benefit.

The disparity between these two figures suggests that keeping people housed during the pandemic is less a matter of making a basic human right available to everyone—underscored by the fact that many homeless Canadians are still weathering the pandemic without a roof above their head—and more about keeping wealth flowing to the upper-middle and ruling classes.

At the same time workers are receiving emergency benefits, provincial governments are unwilling to mandate rent deferrals, meaning landlords will reap a large portion of these benefits while having their own mortgage payments deferred. For many, emergency benefits will not even cover the cost of rent; the average one-bedroom apartment in Toronto costs $2,350 a month.

In this way, the CERB is little more than a cog in the capitalist machine, providing working people with just enough to stay afloat. But it hasn’t always been this way. Decades of austerity have only exacerbated these systemic problems.

Hoarding essential goods

In the last few decades, homelessness has come to be accepted as simply an unpleasant fact of modern society. However, the word “homelessness” never really saw the light of day until the mid-1980s when the federal government’s national housing strategies underwent a massive overhaul. After the devastation caused by the Great Depression, housing for all was front of mind in the public consciousness. The National Housing Act was even amended in 1973, creating 20,000 new social housing units each year. This kept the risk of becoming homeless relatively low.

Yet in 1984, the Canadian government cut funding to social housing, and in 1993 federal spending on the construction of new publicly owned housing came to a grinding halt as the government set its sights on private profit. In 1996, responsibility for low-income social housing was put in the hands of provincial governments who continued to cut funding to social services that benefitted the poor in favour of offering tax breaks for the wealthy.

Since these neoliberal policy shifts, homelessness in Canada has been increasing, and today it is estimated that roughly 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year. And while poverty in Canada has declined slightly in recent years, 3.2 million Canadians are still living below the poverty line.

As the disparity between the minimum wage—which has gone virtually unchanged since the 1970s when adjusted for inflation—and the cost of housing increases, staying housed is becoming more and more precarious, putting thousands of Canadians on the verge of homelessness.

The commodification of housing and lack of regulation on how much landlords can charge in provinces like Alberta and Ontario is putting the prospect of remaining housed further out of reach, so much so that hundreds of thousands of homes are sitting vacant across Canada. Yet even during a health crisis, homeless people are being corralled into shelters that do not have the means to allow the most vulnerable to safely self-isolate under the guise that there is simply nowhere else for them to go.

Some of the austerity measures implemented throughout the early 1980s and 1990s have continued into the present day. Provincial governments are still proposing cuts to public services that help the poor and working classes in favour of providing large subsidies and tax breaks to corporations. Amid calls for more funding to help the homeless, Alberta’s provincial government led by Jason Kenney has even gone ahead and spent $1.5 billion on a pipeline.

While Canada’s federal and provincial governments routinely employ flowery rhetoric to create the impression they are “fighting homelessness”, elected leaders have also turned a blind eye to corporate welfare schemes which have contributed to the public housing crisis in the first place.

An end in sight

Homeless people are facing two crises, but only one is being taken seriously. The entire country is now grappling with the threat of an infectious disease, but homeless people face this reality every day. Without access to proper sustenance or hygiene, homeless people are at higher risk for disease, meaning their average life expectancy is much lower than the rest of the Canadian population. Toronto saw nearly 100 homeless people die in 2017.

Homelessness is expensive, too. Each year it costs taxpayers roughly $53,000 per homeless person, as they are more likely to use healthcare services like emergency rooms and to have encounters with police and paramedics.

In effect, working class Canadians are paying for a problem they are most at risk of experiencing, while complicit corporations who have contributed to the defunding of public housing and supports for the most vulnerable continue to receive large handouts from the government.

Canada cannot keep burying its head in the sand and offering shortsighted solutions. Billions of dollars are doled out to combat homelessness each year, but the issue persists. Housing First initiatives have proven to offset the cost of homelessness by a large margin—Housing First costs taxpayers roughly between $14,000 and $22,000 per homeless person, but they can be riddled with red tape that keeps Canada’s most vulnerable populations at arm’s length. Housing First is also a damage control approach that ignores Canada’s affinity for corporate welfare as the root of the problem.

The Liberal government has talked a big game with its plans for national housing, promising to build 100,000 units of social housing and reduce chronic homelessness by 50 percent over a decade. This is a step in the right direction, but it is still not enough to spur meaningful change.

As long as Canada’s ruling classes are allowed to reap enormous benefits, homelessness will always exist in some capacity. Housing should be a right, not a commodity, and half-hearted solutions are not the way to make this truth a reality.

Megan Pietrus is a writer and editor based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her work has most recently appeared in The Manitoban.

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