There’s a growing problem of homelessness in Canada, exacerbated by the pandemic.
Benjamin Shingler reporting for the CBC wrote: “Across Canada, city officials are trying to figure out how to deal with the increased presence of homeless encampments.” Record-high inflation and soaring rent prices coupled with a huge lack of affordable housing is aggravating poverty, pushing more and more vulnerable folks onto the streets.
In June 2021, I witnessed firsthand the forceful removal of homeless folks living out in tents at Toronto’s downtown Trinity Bellwoods Park. The City of Toronto reportedly spent $2 million to remove homeless encampments at Trinity Bellwoods, Lamport Stadium and Alexandria Park. In February 2022, Halifax municipalities had tents removed from Meagher Park. And as recently as August 9, the City of Vancouver forcefully removed homeless encampment tents on Hastings St.
I’ve grown up with sheer poverty around me. India, where I’m from and and have spent a significant part of my life, is almost synonymous with poverty. While there is much more to this South Asian country, there is no shying away from the fact that it’s impossible to escape raw destitution in India. It’s omnipresent to the point where it has become normalized.
Having said that, homelessness is a word that is not used among the English speaking population, or in English media. Even then, there exist millions of people – an estimated 65 million or 22.5 per cent of the population – who occupy any open urban space to set up a literal shop and home. It’s common to find families living under bridges and flyovers, on sidewalks, side streets, outside places of worship, and other spaces that can aid habitation. Across India, people living in poverty tend to live in slums, large and dense urban settlements consisting of poorly built houses, similar to the encampments seen in major Canadian cities. For example, in Mumbai, 49 per cent of its population live in Dharavi – one of the world’s five largest slums – that occupies roughly 7.5 per cent of the city’s public space.
Even in the face of the rampant existence of poor people on public property, however, I have never witnessed the removal of poor folks by use of brutal police force like what I saw at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods park last year. The time when New Delhi was hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games is the only time I remember in my lifetime, a concerted effort being made to “clean” the city of poor people without a bricks and mortar home. According to one source, 100,000 families were forced out of their homes leading to people, including folks who beg and street hawkers, to lose work. In the late 20th century, some Indian cities were using the now archaic Slum Clearance Scheme to clear slums, but ultimately failed due to the lack of affordable housing.
Big Canadian cities such as Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Winnipeg, among others, aren’t immune to folks living in poverty occupying public spaces. Every year, about 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada. On any given day, between 25,000-35,000 people are sleeping on the streets. While these aren’t recent numbers, it was during the height of the pandemic when homeless shelters were dangerously overcrowded and risked becoming COVID-19 hotspots that their plight became apparent.
The forceful removal of people from their encampments in the face of limited capacity of shelters coupled with the lack of shelters, affordable housing, and well paying jobs that keep up with inflation raises a lot of social and moral questions for Canada.
These questions are especially important to ask in the light of new data from the City of Toronto’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration, which revealed that in the past year-and-a-half, an average of 40 people a night were turned away from government run shelter homes because there was no bed available for them.
So what right does the state have to displace people who are simply existing with the means available to them and without proper public support in place? As poverty and homeless rise in India and the supply of affordable homes don’t, then where are people even supposed to go?
The general public writ large tends to view homeless people as harmful infringements in their otherwise safe, clean communities. Is that really the case or a circumstance that just came to be?
Leilani Farha, who was the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing from June 2014-April 2020, and currently the global director of The Shift, said: “[We cannot look] at people in encampments who pitch a tent as trespassers, as criminals or…[as] charity cases.”
What right do we have to view them as criminals and charity cases when our meritorious social system benefits some over others? Simply – it’s unfair and unjust to move people without a permanent home if the government is unable to provide affordable housing.
Ultimately it’s impossible to displace millions of people in India because…where would they go? Canada, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and has the money to build housing. What’s lacking is political will. In the face of obnoxiously steep rise in rents across Canada when whole families are at the risk of becoming homeless, we cannot stop asking why provincial and municipal governments are more willing to spend millions of dollars on law enforcement officers to evict people, when they could very well take that money and put it towards bolstering shelters and affordable housing.
Both India and Canada are treating some of their most vulnerable people unfairly. The former is apathetic – instead of permanent solutions, politicians would rather offer short-term subsidies to win votes. The latter, too, is apathetic and keeps ignoring the only viable option to curb homelessness – build more permanent affordable housing, a cheaper option than running shelters.
Until such time we create an affordable environment in Canada – one where rents aren’t more than 30 per cent of people’s incomes, food insecurity isn’t on the rise and where permanent affordable housing exists, homelessness is, and should be considered, immoral and unjust.