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Dana Granofsky is the CEO of BGM Strategy. Kira Heineck is the executive lead of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness. Steve Lurie is the executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto. Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute.

In Canada’s first wave of COVID-19, more than 80 per cent of deaths were elderly people in long-term care. In the next wave, homelessness and housing will be the locus.

More than 250,000 people experience homelessness in Canada in a normal year. Emergency measures such as provincial eviction moratoriums and municipalities renting hotel space to house those experiencing homelessness have helped stave off the worst effects of COVID-19 so far. But as eviction protections are eased, people move out of temporary shelter accommodation and the economic downturn bites, we expect the numbers living on the streets, in shelters and tent cities to increase. One in four tenants are worried about making rent this month.

These are people not just numbers. They include people with disabilities, people suffering from mental illness, war veterans, women and families fleeing violence, LGBTQ2S+ youth leaving difficult households, Indigenous people, newcomers and families who never thought they could be homeless but who have lost their income because of the pandemic.

And this increase in homelessness will come just as Spain and France have signalled that the second wave is coming and British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba are seeing upticks in cases.

Low incomes and high rates of existing illness make people experiencing homelessness a high-risk group for COVID-19. The ability to self-isolate and distance are the cornerstones of COVID-19 protection. Homelessness takes away that ability. Urgent action on homelessness is a necessary – and effective – part of a pandemic strategy.

We need to build on the successes of the first wave and act now to avoid a catastrophe in the second.

In the first wave of COVID-19, heroic efforts successfully averted a public-health crisis. Hotels, motels and other empty buildings were converted so that people experiencing homelessness could isolate safely. Crowded, dormitory-style shelters were emptied out to enable physical distancing and their occupants relocated to spaces where they could have a room, bathroom and door with a lock.

Federal money through the Reaching Home program, along with support from provincial and municipal governments, made this possible. The result: The rate of COVID-19 spread flattened among people experiencing homelessness and, as people were settled into more dignified spaces, their mental health improved. When society shows it will not leave you behind, the world looks very different.

But these efforts were time limited. Urgent investments are needed if the efforts of the first wave are not to be wasted. Federal Reaching Home funds need to be renewed immediately to maintain the response and prepare for the second wave. We need to solidify gains and prepare for a second wave.

We must also build on and improve on what works. The temporary spaces that achieved distancing for those experiencing homelessness should be converted to permanent options. The creation of an acquisition fund through the National Housing Strategy could enable municipalities, non-profits and community organizations to buy properties, including hotels and motels. These would create immediate and long-term solutions for people experiencing, or at imminent risk, of homelessness.

A new acquisition fund could combine with the existing National Housing Co-Investment Fund to have an even deeper impact. The acquisition fund would pay for the purchase and the co-investment fund would help renovate purchased sites or convert existing dormitory shelters into individualized spaces more suitable for a pandemic.

An acquisition fund would be a cost-effective use of public money: It creates permanent assets that are immediately available to shelter our most marginalized. If community organizations own, rather than rent, they have more money to provide supports for residents. This leads to better outcomes for residents and improves relations with neighbours. And housing can promote economic growth – for instance, studies have shown that for every $1 invested in housing construction, there is a $1.52 multiplier effect on the local economy.

With homelessness on the rise and the second wave looming, we need to act now to avert a disaster. We have come a long way and made many gains during this pandemic. We need to take the opportunity to build on our success and invest in solutions we know work. An acquisition fund and a renewed Reaching Home program will do this. We cannot afford to squander this chance.

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