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Cheryl Forchuk is the Beryl and Richard Ivey Research Chair in Aging, Mental Health, Rehabilitation and Recovery at Lawson Health Research Institute and the University of Western Ontario. Dr. Forchuk is also the co-author, with Rick Csiernik, of Poverty, Mental Health, and Social Inclusion.

Cracks in Canada’s health care system have been exposed across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Less obvious, however, are the cracks that have been revealed in the country’s approach to homelessness. People in communities across the country may have seen local evidence of crisis, including encampments, but there is still a belief that this is a localized community crisis, rather than a national one.

I’ve seen this contradiction up close, as a lead researcher for a project designed prior to the pandemic and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada. My research team and I have visited nearly every province and territory in recent months, to have conversations with shelter providers and other homeless service providers, to do outreach, to visit places suggested by local experts, and to learn more about the wider contextual factors that influence homelessness in individual communities.

For our study, aimed at developing more accurate methods of understanding how many people in Canada are homeless, we visited urban centres as well as rural areas; we travelled to communities with unique challenges, from those newly experiencing spikes of homelessness, to those where the pandemic significantly exacerbated problems that already existed.

That field work revealed a system that, much like the health care sector, had been struggling for quite some time even before the pandemic struck. COVID-19, then, not only highlighted the sector’s vulnerabilities, but also worsened conditions for people who are homeless.

People told us they often feel unsafe in the close confines of shelters, and are increasingly choosing to live outdoors in the rough as an attempt to stay away. Others are forced outside to face the elements as shelters operate at limited capacity because of physical distancing requirements or temporary closings. Others who rely on couch-surfing have also been displaced outside for similar reasons.

Living in the rough has many challenges: exposure to the elements, difficulty storing food and meeting other basic needs, and risks such as fires destroying property while attempting to stay warm, just to name a few. While some people have outdoor skills and are highly organized, others have struggled and have even died from exposure, fires or overdoses. In some communities, living outside means being harassed by authorities and potentially losing one’s few possessions.

There has also been an increase in people living in vehicles, who have struggled to meet basic needs. Think about how hard it has been for you to access public toilets at times during the pandemic, perhaps on walks with friends or out for your mental health, with many businesses and services closed during lockdowns; now, imagine that these were your only options when it comes to personal hygiene and relief.

These issues aren’t exclusive to large urban centres, either. Rural communities have seen homelessness increase, too. Many of them serve as regional hubs for even smaller and more remote areas, which themselves typically experience seasonal homelessness, in which people relocate from neighbouring communities and into the woods or along trails in the summer time, only to return home in the winter.

The pandemic disrupted this cycle, however, leading more and more people to migrate and stay in larger but still underresourced rural communities to brave the harsh winter in the rough. This creates a perfect storm in which rural homeless services struggle even more to accommodate a growing homeless population. In some communities, we’ve even noticed tension arising between groups of transient homeless people and local homeless people, with both feeling as though they have been further displaced and marginalized.

First, we need to break the stigma surrounding homelessness and help the general public understand that homelessness can affect anyone, anywhere in this country.

For example, the rise in remote work among typically wealthier, white-collar workers has led to some urban Canadians to see “moving to the country” as an attractive option. This trend has increased the value of home ownership and rentals in these more remote areas. Indeed, some of the people we met experienced homelessness for the first time when they were evicted from long-held rental units in houses sold at high profits to such remote workers.

Where can such newly homeless folks seek refuge when their rural communities are now attempting to assist an even larger number of people who are in need of services?

Smaller communities often have a single shelter with only 10 to 20 beds that are completely full. Some shelters just close the door when they’re full, leaving twice as many other people out in the cold. In one such northern community, people left outside with nowhere else to go showed us the various dumpsters and donation bins that they and others crawl into for the night, and explained their personal rating systems to figure out the best spot to sleep. In another small northern community, staff explained how they would cycle different clients in and out of the shelter throughout the day to ensure everyone got a little bit of rest and a short period of warmth.

In all these stories, people were just trying their best in an impossible situation that they primarily identified as a local problem. But that kind of painful loneliness doesn’t have to be the norm.

Homelessness is one of those “wicked” societal problems that can be very difficult to get a grasp of. It crosses many sectors, including income/poverty, housing, employment and health. It also covers all levels of government – federal, provincial/territorial and municipal.

As I wrote in my book Poverty, Mental Health, and Social Inclusion, the issue is like a game of musical chairs. The chairs represent the available affordable housing within a community, and the people circling are the people experiencing poverty. The more people there are relative to the scarce chairs, the greater the number of people experiencing homelessness. In the game, some people have a greater disadvantage in reaching a chair when the music stops, including those with any form of disability or minority status. The abrupt cut-offs to the music, meanwhile, represent transition points that produce periods of housing vulnerability; examples include losing a job, being evicted, a relationship breakup, leaving hospital, domestic violence, jail, or children’s social services.

Strategies to address homelessness, then, need to decrease the number of people circling (that is, strategies to address poverty such as a livable basic income, and social enterprises), increase the number of the chairs (that is, adding public housing stock, creating rent supplements and crafting policies related to rental units), and/or change and extend the music (that is, with specific strategies to support people over difficult transitions).

Most importantly, we need to recognize homelessness as a national problem, with a need for national strategies and resources. Canada finally has a national housing policy that needs to be funded and implemented. We know housing-first strategies are effective strategies.

But we also know that since the federal government got out of the business of providing affordable social housing in 1993 – downloading much of the responsibility onto the provinces, some of which in turn passed the buck to municipalities – Canada has been the only industrialized nation in the world that did not deal with housing on the federal level.

Local action is still needed to implement programs in a way that is logical and sensitive to the community, because context and care for one’s neighbours matters. But changing the game of musical chairs will require bigger, bolder and national action.

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