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Canada’s unhoused crisis: Where government cruelty meets police repression

Unhoused people carry with them an immense pain that is unimaginable for people lucky enough to have more privileged upbringings

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisPolicingHuman Rights

Increases in unhoused populations in Canada are not only compounded by financial insecurity relating to COVID, but also the rising costs of housing across the country. Photo from Flickr.

On August 18, the Halifax Regional Police (HRP) forcibly removed a series of crisis shelters and temporary dwellings for unhoused people at the Peace and Friendship Park, the Halifax Common, the Horseshoe Island Park, and the old Halifax Central Library. The officers were heavily armed and clad in riot gear. They used pepper spray on residents, housing advocates, and passersby (including a 10-year-old girl who was fleeing the scene with her father) and removed or destroyed crisis shelters constructed by Halifax Mutual Aid. At the old library, one of two shelters was removed while the other was sawed, smashed, and left on the lawn overnight.

Demolishing wooden emergency shelter built for homeless people at the Old Central Library in Halifax. Photo by @Red_Hannah_HFX. Used with permission.

“They weren’t just going after the shelters,” said Hannah, a member of the Communist Party of Canada who attended in solidarity with Halifax Mutual Aid and other housing advocates. “They went after pretty much anybody in tents on the peninsula.” A number of residents without the means to store their property elsewhere had their possessions thrown in the garbage, and many were fined upwards of $200. Nova Scotia NDP Leader Gary Burrill was present, chanting “Homes, not cops!” through a megaphone, but his attendance did not prevent the demolitions. A city statement defended the police action, claiming that “it is the municipality’s obligation to address the hazardous conditions posed by this encroachment.”

“The first shelters went up in January,” said Hannah, “[but] the city has been very inconsistent. At first they said it’s fine now but we reserve the right to go in later. Then they said they’d only remove shelters that are not currently occupied. On July 6, they said they were giving notice for folks to vacate by July 13 and that they would remove the shelters at that point.” However, police moved in on July 9 and “took a bunch of shelters including ones that were awaiting repairs as well as some that were being lived in at the time.”

After that, the police were relatively quiet until early August, at which point they began distributing notices near encampments informing residents that their housing would soon be removed. And then, on August 18, “they came for almost everything on the peninsula.”

A protester is arrested during police evictions of unhoused people at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium Park, July 21, 2021. Photo by Jay Watts/Twitter.

Images and videos of the HRP’s violence against peaceful protestors circulated around Canadian media. Similarities to violent evictions from Toronto’s Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods Park, and Lamport Stadium in July were clear: the armoured police, the obviously disproportionate violence, and the claims that the city was providing much-needed help to the residents while demolishing their crisis housing.

Mounted police and private security were deployed at the site of some of these evictions, while the most violent attacks at Lamport Stadium saw at least one officer kneel on the neck of a housing advocate in a technique very similar to the one which Derek Chauvin used to murder George Floyd—despite the fact that the Toronto Police Service claims not to deploy knee-to-neck restraints.

The number of people experiencing homeless in Halifax doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data out of Toronto is also startling. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in January 2021 found that unhoused people in Toronto are twenty times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than the average Ontarian and five times more likely to die, owing to a higher rate of co-morbidities, high population density in public shelters, and city inaction around enacting humane safety measures (in 2020, the City of Toronto lost a lawsuit to housing advocates for misleading the public about physical distancing measures in public shelters).

The recent increases in unhoused populations across Canada are not only compounded by financial insecurity relating to COVID, but also the rising costs of housing across the country and the refusal by provincial governments to institute unconditional eviction bans during this deeply uncertain time. Both Ontario and Nova Scotia implemented temporary eviction bans in 2020, but with the expiration of these orders in June and July respectively, landlords were once again given the power to deny people housing during a global pandemic.

The housing situation is worsening in other provinces as well. The homeless population in Winnipeg has been growing in recent years, with a noticeable spike following the onset of the pandemic. In the midst of this crisis, the City of Winnipeg revealed a plan to place noise-emitting devices under bridges which had sheltered encampments in the past, with the intention of driving away congregations of unhoused people. This plan was ultimately scrapped following justified outrage from the people of Winnipeg.

Manitoba has reached an agreement with the federal government to build over 2,000 affordable housing units in the coming years, but as Dylan Robertson of the Winnipeg Free Press reports, “the agreement deems a $964 monthly rent for a one-bedroom unit to be affordable in Winnipeg, an amount that remains out of reach for many.” This is not the worst of it: one financing program offers loans to build “rental units that must be priced at, or below, 30 percent of median household income for the city.” The median for Winnipeg family incomes is around $90,000, which means that an apartment with a monthly rent of $2,250 is considered “affordable” in the city.

In 2017, the Trudeau government released a ten-year national housing plan. This project has done nothing to decrease rising unhoused populations or housing precarity in many of Canada’s largest cities, including Calgary (where a study by the School of Public Policy indicates that 25 percent of people entering the city’s shelters each month are there for the first time) and Vancouver, where people experiencing homelessness are particularly concentrated in the Downtown Eastside.

The Liberals’ national housing plan has proven woefully insufficient as a result of Canada’s profit-driven housing market and the narrow-minded focus on “affordable” rather than “guaranteed” housing, or rent pegged to tenant incomes. Furthermore, the willingness of provincial governments to deploy disproportionate violence against unhoused people who are not being served by these inadequate measures reveals the refusal of our political elites to recognize their failures. In short, the contradictions within the Canadian capitalist system have created a situation in which unhoused people are punished for having been abandoned by their government.

In order to combat the unhoused crisis humanely, there must be a whole-of-government response constituting sweeping reforms to the capitalist housing industry. Photo by Ponderosa Templeton/Wikimedia Commons.

A disproportionate number of unhoused people in Canada belong to historically marginalized and oppressed groups, particularly Indigenous peoples. In 2016, Homeless Hub found that “Indigenous youth are extremely overrepresented, making up only 4.3 percent of the Canadian population but 30.6 percent of the youth homeless population.”

The trauma of past experiences and the hopelessness of present circumstances causes some unhoused people to turn to drugs as a means of palliating their pain. This drug use contributes to the increased mortality risk faced by these populations. Nevertheless, Canadian politicians continue to stigmatize unhoused people and those struggling with addiction as existing “outside” of civilized society. For example, outgoing Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has been vocal in his opposition to safe injection sites and harm reduction approaches to drug addiction, even as Winnipeg’s methamphetamine crisis intensifies each year and community groups call for provincial support for safe spaces.

It is obvious that unhoused people do not only face the many stresses of sleeping on the street. They are also highly exposed to crime, community violence, and drug use, and privileged society’s aversion to all these things causes their fear and distaste to reflect on everybody who has suffered through housing loss. For a culture that defines itself by “Canadian politeness,” privileged Canadians appear to have no problem with their representatives in government denying other Canadians housing and plunging them into the violence that follows, including that which is regularly meted out by the police, usually not as publicly as the recent spectacles of cruelty in Toronto and Halifax.

Recent statistics on the number of people experiencing homelessness who are driven to drug use are starkly illuminating. A 2018 survey conducted by Everybody Counts revealed that “the proportion of individuals who reported addiction or substance use increases with time spent homeless, from 19 percent at zero to two months to 28.2 percent for those who reported over six months of homelessness.” So not only is the Canadian government denying people (an inordinate amount of whom belong to historically oppressed groups) the basic human dignity of a roof over their heads, it is then ostracizing and punishing a significant percentage of those people who begin self-medicating to dull the pain of housing loss. This is not how a healthy society acts. It is therefore necessary to stop thinking of homelessness, drug addiction, and related domestic crises as outgrowths of individualized pathologies or mental illness—they are actually the result of what professor Anthony Zenkus calls “community illness,” which can also be described as the adverse mental health impact of the systemic violence engendered by Canada’s colonial-capitalist culture.

In the seminal examination of drug addiction in downtown Vancouver, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté writes that “the question is never ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’” While working as the staff physician for the Portland Hotel Society in downtown Vancouver, the “core mandate” of which was to provide domiciles for unhoused people, he wrote that “36 percent are HIV positive or have AIDS, and most are addicted to alcohol or other substances—anything from rice wine or mouthwash, cocaine or heroin. Over half have been diagnosed with mental illness. The proportion of Native Canadians among Portland residents is five times their ratio in the general population.”

Unhoused people carry with them an immense pain that is unimaginable for people lucky enough to have more privileged upbringings. “How [can we] soothe souls inflamed by the intense torment imposed first by childhood experiences almost too sordid to believe?” asks Maté. He goes on:

And how to offer them comfort when their sufferings are made worse every day by social ostracism—by what the scholar and writer Elliot Leyton has described as “the bland, racist, sexist and ‘classist’ prejudices buried in Canadian society: an institutionalized contempt for the poor, for sex trade workers, for drug addicts and alcoholics, for aboriginal people.”

One must add the LGBTQ+ community to Leyton’s list. Homeless Hub found that LGBTQ+ youth comprise almost one third of unhoused youth in Canada.

Some provinces have implemented harm reduction measures to combat drug addiction, but these strategies do not get to the root of the problem. In order to truly tackle these humanitarian crises, one must not allow people experiencing homelessness to be relegated to a socioeconomic position which deems their brutalization by police culturally acceptable. One must deal with the trauma of the historically oppressed groups who comprise a disproportionate number of those suffering through Canada’s worst domestic crises.

And finally, in order to combat these crises humanely, there must be a whole-of-government response constituting sweeping reforms to the capitalist housing industry, underserved health and community services, and policing. Anything short of this does a disservice to the historical suffering of communities who have been and are being tormented by the effects of discrimination, colonialism, and capitalism every day in Canada.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Follow him on Twitter @OwenSchalk.


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