Police tear down an encampment in a Halifax park as protestors look on, August 18 2021. (Image: Kate Higginson/Used with permission)
Police tear down an encampment in a Halifax park as protestors look on, August 18 2021. (Image: Kate Higginson/Used with permission)

Weight loss, deteriorating mental health, and communities “homeless-proofing” — that’s how a new case study is describing the initial impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on those experiencing homelessness.

The case study, COVID-19 and Homelessness: Promoting Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery in Two Communities in Nova Scotia, explored pandemic challenges in Halifax and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality between February and April 2020. The study concluded that public health guidelines intensified the daily struggles for those experiencing housing precarity. Researchers conducted interviews with 24 service stakeholders and 28 people experiencing homelessness.

Dr. Jeff Karabanow, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University, co-authored the study. He said a common finding in the study was respondents experienced significant weight loss during that time. Others spoke about the challenge of limited food bank hours, one-meal-a-day shelter services and a lack of safe drug/alcohol supply. Most startling, “nearly every homeless participant expressed experiencing decline in both physical and mental health during the initial phases of the pandemic,” the study reported.

“One homeless participant in Halifax explained this phenomenon as the city becoming ‘homeless proof’ due to the lack of public spaces that the homeless could access,” the report reads, noting libraries, soup kitchens, and fast food spots like Tim Hortons — common places for people without a home to access washrooms — shut down overnight at the onset of the pandemic.

In 2006, Karabanow wrote, “living rough also entails ‘living out one’s private world in public spaces.’” Maybe that’s the reason the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted this issue with such urgency. While respondents felt “left behind” and “exposed,” lockdown restrictions forced individuals experiencing homelessness to become hyper-visible.

The study recommends the provision of phone lines for people experiencing domestic abuse, the creation of long-term non-market housing and access to accurate health information about the pandemic. 

“’Stay the blazes home’ really alienated those who don’t have homes,” Karabanow said in an interview with rabble.ca, of a statement by former Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil that drew criticism from housing advocates and experts alike. “They almost were viewed as being delinquent if they weren’t at home.”

‘Housing First’ model fracturing Canadian housing advocacy: expert

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, homelessness activist, and monthly columnist with rabble.ca said the lack of meaningful action on housing is partially due to the split in housing advocacy groups across the country.

On one side, according to Crowe, housing advocates still believe Canadians should be fighting for national social housing programs in ways comparable to public healthcare  – government-provided housing for seniors, for families, students and low-income individuals.

The more dominant group, Crowe said, are organizations dedicated exclusively to eradicating homelessness based on the American model of “Housing First.” This approach — Housing First instead of Housing for All — is partially successful due to federal funding, support that Crowe believes compromises the direction of housing advocacy.

Crowe pointed to the Rapid Housing Initiative as a positive response from the federal government prompted by the pandemic, though she said it’s “horrible” that more hasn’t been done.

“There’s discrimination around so many types of housing,” Crowe explained, from students, families and individuals with pets to individuals on rental assistance and seniors on a fixed income.

Crowe said the term affordable housing has been co-opted by financial and political stakeholders to often mean a fraction of affordable units for new developments. The problem with the definition of “affordable housing” lies with who decides what is affordable, which is generally the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s guidelines for the region.

“You would have to be a teacher, nurse or have a good factory job to be able to afford it,” Crowe said, adding the problem is the CHMC’s guidelines aren’t geared to low-income housing.

In cities like Toronto and Halifax, municipalities are turning to modular housing as a temporary shelter space for those experiencing homelessness.

“[Modular housing is] an innovative, creative approach to the housing crisis, but it’s all homeless people going there,” Crowe said, describing the move as “ghettoizing and prioritizing” housing for homeless people, forgetting about low-income renters struggling to make ends meet.

Not only are politicians missing the mark when it comes to the urgency of acquiring safe, secure and affordable housing for Canadians, according to Crowe, so are journalists. She said media organizations largely ignored the issue of housing precarity in the country until this year, with the bulk of coverage focused on affordability rather than the uncertainty and insecurity facing low-income renters.

Crowe believes the coverage of housing precarity during the election was surface-level, focusing on foreign investments and the financialization of housing rather than the (lack of) public policy that has exacerbated Canada’s housing crisis over the past twenty years.

“The urgency is huge but governments are never going to respond until there is that strong popular movement and strong grassroots movement,” Crowe said, adding that groups and people who regularly organize around housing are preoccupied with a pandemic, fighting disaster conditions and preventing the criminalization of homelessness at encampments.

Housing became a top election issue; will that translate to Parliament?

“Vote Housing” was a non-partisan campaign funded through the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness launched ahead of the recent federal election with six main pillars to pitch across party lines.

According to Vote Housing’s website, 27 per cent of renters in Canada live in housing that is unaffordable, in need of major repairs, or overcrowded. Even starker, nearly four in 10 Canadians have either experienced homelessness themselves or know someone who has.

Statistics Canada estimated in January that 235,000 Canadians are currently experiencing homelessness in any given year, with between 25,000 and 35,000 people going without shelter each night.

Tim Ross, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, told rabble.ca the campaign resulted in more than 25,000 letters to party leaders and candidates prioritizing action on housing. In addition, 18 mayors from across the country endorsed the Vote Housing campaign in a sign of support from local governments.

“We fundamentally believe that the crisis of mass homelessness and housing need was created largely through federal policy and we need concerted federal leadership and action to remedy this crisis,” Ross said.

The campaign’s objectives include the commitment to end homelessness, the implementation of an urban, rural, and northern Indigenous housing strategy, and the development or purchase of a minimum of 300,000 units of “deeply affordable non-market, co-op and non-profit housing” over the next 10 years.

The Vote Housing campaign conducted public surveys prior to the writ drop that found one in three renters and up to 5 million Canadians are worried about paying their housing expenses next month, according to Ross.

While the approach of housing advocacy groups will be forced to shift due to limited changes in the recent federal election, one aspect of solving the crisis remains: urgency.

The Trudeau government has shown it’s willing to take swift action on housing — just look at the Rapid Housing Initiative, a $1-billion investment to create more than 4,700 units of affordable housing across Canada. With the winter months drawing near, the federal government must take a proactive approach to secure housing for the country’s most vulnerable.

While COVID-19 may not be preventable, homelessness is.

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...