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Housing in crisis: COVID-19 laid bare the vast inequities around us

The 10th Annual Social Justice Week opened with a discussion on how the pandemic magnifies the city’s housing crisis
By: Surbhi Bir
November 06, 2020
Encampment in Toronto with sign Winter is coming. We need permanent housing now

People in this encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park worry that with winter approaching, they’re in immediate need of permanent housing. Photo credit: Elena Berd.

“We’re all in this together.” 

Organizations and governments often use this phrase to provide hope and comfort to the millions of people facing physical, psychological and economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But are we really in it together? The one-size-fits-all approach to the pandemic hasn’t helped the marginalized and racialized communities who are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Instead, it’s exacerbating the various inequalities that exist in our communities.

At the virtual opening session (external link)  of the Ryerson Social Justice Week (SJW) organized by the Unifor National Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, an expert panel discussed the plight of the homeless population and the Canadian government’s failure to adequately address their needs and concerns.

One key takeaway? The panellists agreed that the lack of a COVID-19 plan for people who are experiencing homelessness is a continuation of years of neglect on housing and shelter issues.

The intersection of race and colonization

For Indigenous people in Canada, adequate housing has been a decades-long struggle. Steven Teekens, a member of Nipissing First Nation and the executive director at Na-Me-Res (external link)  (Native Men’s Residence) said that according to the  (PDF file) 2018 Toronto Street Needs Assessment (external link) , Indigenous people made up less than 2.5 per cent of Toronto’s population, but 16 per cent of all people who are experiencing homelessness and 38 per cent of those outdoors on the streets were Indigenous. 

According to the panellists, the impact of systemic racism on housing and homelessness became undeniable in 2017 when the government’s new National Housing Strategy ignored race and the concerns of marginalized groups. Since then, homelessness has worsened every single year across the country.

“Racialized people, immigrants and refugees in Canada experience disproportionately higher levels of homelessness and poor housing because of higher rates of poverty, systemic discrimination, cuts to income security programs they may or may not be able to access, and simply a lack of housing,” said Shalini Konanur, lawyer and executive director at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO (external link) ).

‘A social X-ray’ that highlights inequities

In the early days of the pandemic, there was growing public concern for long-term care homes and other types of congregate living settings. However, there was less focus on what was going on in homeless shelters or prisons.

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and a Ryerson Distinguished Visiting Practitioner in the Faculty of Arts, shared how the discrimination has been evident since the pandemic hit. In what she calls a battle for equity, activists are fighting for basic protections that aren’t being offered to people in shelters.

These include broader screening and testing of people experiencing homelessness instead of finding and arresting them in encampments, mask surveillance screening at city shelters that are also congregate hotspots, and making sure that people in shelters are provided proper masks and encouraged to wear them.

“I think it was the writing on the wall for me when it took the city six weeks to set up just two portable toilets outside an encampment,” Crowe said. 

Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa declined to mandate masks and physical distancing in shelters, and a coalition (external link)  of public interest organizations eventually took the city to court. At the time, beds in shelters were only two feet apart, many were sleeping on bunk beds and bathrooms were rarely being cleaned.

“We really just wanted the bare minimum, which is giving people two metres between their beds – the same protections we’d want for ourselves and our families, in long-term care homes and grocery stores,” said Emily Hill, senior staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) who worked on the lawsuit. 

Impending and hidden homelessness

For Konanur, one of the biggest issues with housing in racialized communities is hidden homelessness. “I have more clients telling me they’re now living in their cars than I’ve ever had in the last 20 years,” she said. To make matters worse, there is no data being collected that could demonstrate the extent of hidden homelessness. 

The combination of a housing and public health crisis has also escalated concerns for victims of gender-based violence. Many of them are often too scared to leave an abusive situation because of unsafe shelter conditions, no means of finding transitional housing or any way of knowing where they’d be permanently housed.

Another looming threat in Ontario and other parts of the country is impending homeslessness, as moratoriums on evictions are now lifted. With the crisis expected to only worsen in the coming winter months, people are worried about what happens if they can’t make rent. Once the evictions court gets moving, a flood of people will inevitably descend into homelessness.

Demanding action and accountability

In addition to implementing Indigenous-specific outreach programs, and culturally appropriate and diverse Indigenous-led housing services, Teekens amplified the need to address Indigenous concerns in the National Housing Strategy as ways to provide relief. “It’s simple – housing can reconcile homelessness,” he says. 

While Toronto has received federal funding, or acquisition money, to purchase buildings like empty hotels and offices and convert them into social housing, the city has not bought a single property yet.

“We are drowning in the bureaucracy and the lack of urgency by Mayor Tory and city officials,” said Crowe. 

She urges people to demand action from city councilors by asking them to stop the evictions of encampments, provide the support that people need like toilets, water and garbage pickup, acquire more hotels for shelter, along with more housing and rent supplements so that people can be fast tracked from shelters to hotels.

Changing the conversation

Crowded shelters, inadequate dining and sleeping areas, forced migrations, evictions from public spaces, an aging population and reduced access to health care all contribute to making individuals who are homeless more vulnerable to the outbreak.

The panellists concluded that it’s time for governments to walk the talk by planning and executing inclusive solutions to the current housing and health crises.

In her opening remarks, Elder (Ke Shay Hayo) and Senior Advisor – Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Joanne Dallaire perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the event and the Social Justice Week itself. 

“We have never seen such an upheaval of what we know to be our day-to-day lives. And of course, the marginalized are the ones that are impacted the most. So I ask that everyone come together, put your thinking hats on and see how we can help the lives of those who need our attention, need our love and need to be reminded that we haven’t forgotten them,” she said.

If you’re in need of immediate support, you can access one of the crisis lines, the Ryerson safe house and other community resources. For more information, please visit the Student Wellbeing page.

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