Jino Distasio is a professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg, and the local research lead for the At Home Chez Soi Project from 2009 to 2015.
Being homeless should not be an early death sentence, yet all too often it is.
Canadians were reminded of this again after a homeless woman was killed in Toronto, unthinkably, trapped in a clothing donation bin just nine days after a man died in similar circumstances in Vancouver. At least eight people have died this way since 2015. That is eight too many – especially since the deaths were caused by charitable services ostensibly meant to help the vulnerable.
These highly public events – not to mention the rise of tent cities over the past few years, including outside Victoria’s provincial courthouse – often act as catalysts for outraged Canadians to call for swift action, and rightly so. But we can’t lose sight of one key question: Do these tragedies trigger a meaningful search for solutions, or just knee-jerk reactions that cause more harm than good?
If the design of the bins can be modified to reduce risk of accidental injury or death, then we must take immediate action; some Canadian organizations have now started to do so. But would banning the bins improve health outcomes or mortality rates among those experiencing homelessness or addiction, or would such a superficial move merely mask the bigger question of why such bins are being used for unintended reasons. What would motivate an impoverished person to try to steal or sell those items? What were the circumstances that would lead a homeless person to seek refuge in a bin?
We are not, after all, seeing a meaningful reduction in those struggling to find shelter. An estimated 30,000 Canadians remain homeless on any given night. The federal government’s ambitious 10-year, $40-billion Reaching Home strategy – a plan to cut chronic homelessness in half while building 100,000 units and repairing 300,000 more – won’t be launched until late spring. And we’re yet to learn how provinces, cities and community organizations will partner in its wake to produce meaningful change.
To think about these questions, we also have to understand how far we have come as a country in wrestling with various strategies, some of which have been closely tied to high-profile events. On Dec. 23, 1989, 10 people died in a horrific fire at Toronto’s Rupert Hotel rooming house. While the blaze’s impact on individuals and families is immeasurable, it did profoundly influence building standards and inspections of such forms of housing, not only in Canada’s largest city but elsewhere in the country. It also shed light on a form of housing most did not realize was so abundant in Canadian cities.
A decade later, Toronto once again found itself at the centre of an international media storm as its infamous Tent City, which had grown from a few persons to a full encampment, rose and fell. It changed the way Canada understood and addressed homelessness, including the heightened need for short-term emergency services, and helped influence a $753-million mandate to address a growing crisis many Canadians believed was largely an American issue.
Canada has come a long way since the late 1990s, when homelessness became a problem many local jurisdictions were unable to address. To find solutions, we invested billions in various projects aimed at building shelters and providing triage supports. It was not until 2008, when the Mental Health Commission of Canada launched the At Home Chez Soi program (AHCS), that we fundamentally shifted from temporary fixes to seeking permanent solutions. With its housing-first approach, Canada’s AHCS pilot projects in Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver became the leading program to end homelessness not only in our country, but internationally.
No amount of money or programs can undo the preventable tragedies that have hurt families and individuals over the past 25 years. But we must continue to address the underlying causes of poverty.
I witnessed firsthand what happens when we fail. In a four-year span, AHCS lost a staggering 50 people, their lives cut short by the fact that being homeless and living in poverty have deep consequences for health and quality of life. Now, a simple plaque stands just off Vancouver’s Main Street strip acknowledging the deaths among this group and many others who died needlessly.
Perhaps we can honour those whose lives ended far too soon, not with a marker on a wall, but with programs and supports that transform lives for the good. It’s time to embrace prevention work that changes how we think about homelessness, stops the cycle of poverty, and interrupts the various pathways that lead to homelessness.