Homelessness has always been a prevalent issue in urban cities and the current pandemic has exacerbated the problem as the virus disproportionally affects vulnerable populations, including the homeless. In Canada, the homeless population has suffered following Covid-19 instated governmental laws. With social distancing rules in place, shelters have limited the number of bedsoffered to the public, resulting in increased homeless encampments in public areas such as parks and other recreational grounds.
The lack of safe housing and the unsanitary conditions in shelters leave homeless individuals at an increased risk of contracting the virus. While many already lack access to health care, the spread of Covid-19 may be more rapid and severe for the homeless community.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, encampments have opened up throughout Toronto as people avoid visiting shelters in fear of contracting the deadly virus. Additionally, as the pandemic has left many without employment and struggling to pay bills and for other necessities, the homeless population is growing. Precisely, more than one million people in Ontario have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic.
However, even with encampment sites, homeless individuals are struggling to seek shelter. In mid-October, the government denied a request filed by a group of homeless men and women to temporarily override a bylaw that prohibits them from staying in Toronto parks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the city has moved nearly 950 people out of encampments and increased efforts to re-home them.
In preparation for the upcoming colder months within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the City of Toronto has recently announced a winter service plan to help those experiencing homelessness. The plan’s first shelter opened its doors November 2. However, rather than looking for the homeless population’s best interests, the shelter has implemented glass barriers resembling boxes or cages. The shelter’s prison-like structures and other strict housing rules have been addressed and protested on social media platforms due to its inherent lack of humanity.
Physical distancing and isolation interventions have proven to mitigate the spread of the virus. Yet, these regulations hold negative implications for individuals who are homeless in Toronto and globally. Specifically, social relationships and support services have been disrupted due to the abrupt closure of drop-in services and community centers. The lack of these resources have led to the deterioration of homeless individuals’ mental health. Along with the limited access to certain public spaces, homeless individuals struggle to maintain a substantial standard of life with limited services, reducing their hours and capacity.
Regarding those struggling with substance use, the closure of relevant services has increased their stress levels, leading to heavier and more dangerous practices. Additionally, the risk of overdose and unsafe drug use is rising due to intermittent use, loss of drug tolerance, and reduced access to supervised consumption services.
Similarly, the homeless community relying on panhandling or sex work as a source of income faces significant difficulty in safely continuing work with the physical distancing regulations.
With the rising price of real estate, affordability has become a crisis in Ontario. The pandemic benefits, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), are not easily accessible to those living on the streets with limited means to learn about and acquire governmental aid. Additionally, they are less likely to attain these modes of assistance. Many homeless individuals lack requirements such as a mailing address or place of residence, social insurance number, bank card, and phone number, among others.
Though not experts on the subject of homelessness, Assistant Professor Yvonne Sherwood and Associate Professor Sida Liu, both teaching in UTM’s sociology department, share some insight on this matter from a sociological perspective.
Professor Sherwood discusses that one of the primary causes of homelessness is the government’s extraction of resources. The Canadian government fails to provide effective solutions for homeless individuals. Sherwood also offers alternative perspectives to resolve this matter.
“I think that overall we need to humanize the issue. There are so many stereotypes in our day-to-day lives where we think of houseless folks as undeserving. We need to understand that folks experiencing stress and trauma of houselessness are human beings and deserve access to safe places.”
Furthermore, to bring light to how the government fails to prioritize minority groups’ access to basic necessities, Professor Sherwood talks about a recent humanitarian issue. In early October, Neskantaga First Nations were forced to evacuate their homes when high levels of hydrocarbon were discovered in their water supply. With this example, Professor Sherwood demonstrates how the government is actively extracting resources from these disadvantaged Indigenous groups, a body that is supposed to be protecting them.
“When we talk about houselessness or those sorts of issues, we have to think about all of those other things going on because you have [the] media framing these people as poor and needy, and lacking infrastructure.” Professor Sherwood stresses the need to address public media’s attempts to falsify homeless individuals’ desires and blame them for their circumstances while ignoring the lack of supportive services.
Now, how has the pandemic led to the increase of unemployment, and in turn, homelessness? Professor Liu provides some answers to this question.
“The increase in homelessness during the pandemic has much to do with the entrenched inequality in our society,” he mentions. “This has been intensified by the economic shock that Covid-19 generated, which led to unemployment and, repeatedly, the loss of homes.”
Professor Liu recognizes that the government has an obligation to help individuals seek protection and health in such uncertain times but ultimately says not all homeless people are willing to go to these government programs. With the continuous lack of resources and stigmas surrounding homelessness, most homeless communities do not wish to rely on the government for shelter.
With this in mind, one of Professor Liu’s UTM students, Shankeerth Suresh, conducted an ethnographic study on homeless individuals in downtown Toronto in 2018. His study explored the idea that for some homeless individuals, their lifestyle is a conscious choice.
According to the study, there are multiple reasons that argue why the homeless community prefers to steer away from shelters and refuse government assistance. Suresh explains that some of these reasons include drug addiction, lack of trust in the government, and even personal ego. However, these are not the only factors that keep the homeless community from reaching out for help.
“The streets are perceived as better for homeless individuals in comparison to shelters since it allows them to live a life with a sense of family and predictability,” states Suresh in his study.
As there is currently no cure or long-term treatment for the virus, the spread of Covid-19 exacerbates homeless individuals’ distrust in the government for assistance and safe shelter.
With social distancing regulations implemented for all and the lack of effort to provide necessities for this dependent population, pandemic’s impact has strongly impaired the homeless community—both in terms of their physical and mental health. The lack of resources compounded with the new stressors has made it harder to cater to this community of individuals.