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Tents sit below the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto in this file photo from Jan. 16, 2019. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness says Canada needs to create more emergency shelter spaces to protect the homeless population from COVID-19.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

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While the pasta, beans and toilet paper were being cleared off the shelves of nearby supermarkets on a recent night, Ines Garcia was at home in her Toronto apartment, eating a meal of rice with corn and beef, all made with groceries purchased on sale in bulk before the novel coronavirus panic had truly taken hold of her city. She didn’t have the luxury of building a pandemic stockpile – she was worried about how she was going to pay rent in April.

Ms. Garcia, 54, lives in a subsidized apartment in the city’s Regent Park neighbourhood and her two part-time jobs support her teenaged children and her octogenarian mother. She’ll be missing a large chunk of her income when Ontario schools close for two weeks after March break, since one of her jobs is lunch supervisor at a school. She anticipates the other job, at a women’s clothing store, might abruptly end soon if the government expands orders for non-essential businesses to close.

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“People are already living in poverty and then when you’re working part-time and you don’t have that cheque coming in, that makes it worse for all the people who depend on that cheque,” Ms. Garcia said.

The spread of the coronavirus has put a spotlight on the stark class divisions in Canada. Low-income Canadians and the agencies that serve them say directives given by public health officials and relief offered by the federal government are overlooking a huge swath of the population. How do you self-isolate when “home” is a crowded shelter? How do you take time off work when you have no paid sick days? How do you build up a stockpile of food and supplies when you struggle to afford groceries each week?

Many – including part-time workers such as Ms. Garcia, as well as many who are self-employed or part of the gig economy – don’t qualify for employment insurance. And access to paid leave for sickness or other reasons is limited for those with low incomes.

"It is immediately clear that lower-income workers are already substantially more likely to be taking leave that is unpaid – and are therefore far more likely to face the prospect of an unpaid quarantine,” said David Macdonald, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a report published this week. His research found that those in the top income decile had 74 per cent of their leaves covered in 2019, while just 14 per cent of those in the lowest decile did.

“There’s a bit of a middle-class bias to all the interventions,” said Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit devoted to food education.

And as panic gives rise to a sense of individualism – let me get a month’s supply of food for my family, let me find a nanny to look after my kids – “for folks with low incomes, they are really struggling to figure out, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t afford to stockpile food,'" Mr. Taylor said. "There’s no funding support available for those who are going to be struggling with access to childcare.”

An uptick in layoffs and reduced shifts have food banks bracing for an increase in demand and concern about how they’ll continue to operate, especially given a drop in donations as of late, says Kirstin Beardsley, the chief network services officer of Food Banks Canada.

“What we are hearing is that existing clients are very stressed about not being able to assemble two weeks’ worth of food should they need it,” she said.

Many food banks also feel strained because they rely heavily on volunteers, whose numbers have dropped following social distancing recommendations, Ms. Beardsley said. In response, they have been consolidating operations with small teams and using low-touch pickup systems.

Social distancing recommendations have also spelled financial peril for chef Sophia Banks, 40, and her partner. They have poured the past four months of time and funds into creating a product that was to have its debut at Vancouver’s Vegan Night Market on March 19, which has been indefinitely postponed. She had expected to make a few thousand dollars in sales.

“Right now, it’s kind of at the end where it’s like, okay, we have no money left,” she said. With no savings to pull from, she might normally pick up catering gigs, but with widespread event cancellations, no such opportunities exist.

“We’re all going to see our income just completely dry up from all of this,” she said. “This is going to be a huge crisis, like we’re gonna have hundreds of thousands of people in Canada unable to pay rent in a few weeks.”

Organizations who work with low-income earners or the precariously employed agree that a relief package in the form of cash transfers for individuals or families would be most beneficial to offset the current turmoil. In Japan, for example, the government gave out cash subsidies to cover lost wages for parents forced to care for their children because of school closures, or workers who had to self-quarantine at home.

That relief may be coming in Canada, but for those in the most dire situation – the homeless, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addictions – the greatest help would come from the government providing an emergency fund for shelters to increase spaces, said Rick Lees, the executive director at Winnipeg’s Main Street Project.

“There’s absolutely no logical system in place to deal with the most vulnerable and most marginalized," he said. “While we’re telling people to not congregate in [groups of] greater than 250, or even 50, nobody has a plan for the 110 people that will sleep side by side in our shelter.”

In Toronto, the city announced Tuesday, the shelter system is temporarily expanding into empty municipal facilities that will allow for better social distancing between clients. If someone is being tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, they will not be allowed to enter the regular shelter system and instead be taken to an isolated space until they receive their results.

While she welcomed the city’s move to create more space in response to the pandemic, Patricia Mueller, the chair of the Toronto Shelter Network, said general directives from public health – like frequent and thorough hand washing, for example – can be challenging to implement.

She explained that alcohol-based sanitizer dispensers can’t be mounted in public spaces in all shelters because “there have been cases where clients have stolen it in desperation ... and some people are afraid to take a shower because they have this paranoia that their things are going to be stolen, right? So we have to work within the realm of all of those issues with all of our clients.”

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