COVID-19 shines a light on hidden homelessness

As the state of emergency continues in Ontario, experts are growing concerned about its impacts on an often hard-to-track population
By Mary Baxter - Published on May 11, 2020
“Hidden homelessness” involves people couch-surfing or finding other shelter outside emergency housing. (iStock.com/Kemter)

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CHATHAM — Twice a week, before COVID-19, Al McGuigan, executive director of Reach Out Chatham Kent Missions, and his team of 40 volunteers would hand out 160 lunch bags and other items — needles for harm reduction, toothbrushes, clothing, Band-Aids — to people experiencing some form of homelessness in Chatham. In March, after social-distancing measures came into effect and soup kitchens and public spaces closed, the number of lunches jumped to 270. 

McGuigan attributes the increased demand to people living in what he describes as a state of “hidden homelessness” — which is when people couch-surf or find other shelter outside emergency housing. “They carry their belongings in a backpack, and so they go from house to house, depending on where they can find a place to lay their head,” he says. “They sometimes have taken a closet, or a former entranceway is closed off and turned into a bedroom.” 

As the state of emergency continues in Ontario, some experts are growing concerned about its impacts on this often hard-to-track population — and they worry that the hidden homeless are being pushed out into the streets. 

That’s what social-services providers in Chatham-Kent think might have happened in their municipality. From February to March, the homeless count there went from below 90 to more than 200, says April Rietdyk, Chatham-Kent’s general manager of health and family services.

Rietdyk suspects that physical-distancing rules limiting gatherings to no more than five people are what triggered the surge. “They might have been working at a fast-food restaurant; they might have been working at one of our large kind of box stores, all making minimum wage,” she says. “And, an individual, even on minimum wage, it’s still pretty hard [for them] to find a place to rent and live,” she adds, citing the recent escalation of rent prices in the municipality and the decline of affordable-housing stock.

Carol Kauppi, director of the Centre for Research in Social Justice and Policy at Laurentian University, says that similar increases are being noticed in northeastern Ontario. “In Sudbury, in particular, outreach workers have said they have seen a massive increase,” she says. “People are saying things like, ‘It’s skyrocketing on the streets.’” 

Yet Kauppi wonders whether there is an actual increase. Many people remain in their homes, and the streets have become quieter — so it is simply that those who had managed to hide their homelessness have become more visible? “People will often turn to friends or family as a first step to avoiding having to sleep on the streets, but then they may try many, many other things as they struggle with finding shelter,” she says. In a 2017 study on hidden homelessness in rural and northern Ontario, she and other researchers found that people were squatting, sleeping in stairwells or basements, slipping into crawl spaces under homes, and using sex work as a way to find shelter for the coldest part of a night. Some, she says, may hide their situation from outreach workers and avoid applying for benefits because of concerns about stigma or a lack of documentation. 

Kauppi is also concerned that the COVID-19 situation may lead to a wave of homelessness involving another group: those who were already in debt well before the pandemic hit and many workplaces shut down. “In the current context,” she says, “we might say they’re going to result in a greater level of homelessness.” 

In jurisdictions surrounding Chatham-Kent, social-services managers report seeing only a slight increase in homeless numbers. Valerie Colasanti, general manager of social services for Lambton County, says that the county has been able to cope so far by increasing capacity in existing shelters and adding shelter space in an area hotel. But gauging who may be precariously housed or on the brink of absolute homelessness is “very challenging for us to track,” Colasanti says. That’s why her municipality is introducing a by-name list with the help of a four-year $2 million federal grant to tackle homelessness

Currently, 11 communities in Ontario maintain a by-name list, including Chatham-Kent. Such lists identify people who are homeless and record the circumstances that led to their situation. Municipalities and social-service organizations use them to help people find housing and other supports. 

Kauppi says the system raises serious privacy concerns. "I really think that the issues around privacy and confidentiality are serious concerns and impediments to getting a by-names list that actually documents accurately the size of the homeless population," she says. "So if people are using the list as a way to estimate costs of housing people, you know, what is the need in the community, it may not be an accurate reflection of that." But Ian Hanney, Lambton’s housing and homelessness coordinator, says he’s not aware of privacy being an issue: “You can set up your consent so that an individual can be removed from your by name list once they have a certain level of housing status.” 

In Chatham, McGuigan worries about people adjusting to life on the street in the midst of a pandemic. Most stores, restaurants, and public buildings are closed. That means little access to running water; until the arrival of portable toilets in the downtown area in mid-April, McGuigan says, “There was no place even for them to go to the bathroom in a dignified way.” Many experiencing homelessness will gravitate toward groups in order to adapt and ensure safety at night, he adds: “If anybody got the virus, it would go through our community like wildfire.” 

The municipality has taken steps to address the situation: a temporary emergency shelter opened in the hall of a downtown convention centre on April 29 to provide people with a place to physically distance properly. Operating the 55-bed facility, funded by the provincial social-services relief fund, could also provide insight into the sudden jump in homeless numbers, says Polly Smith, the municipality’s director of employment and social services: “One of my friends actually said, ‘Never waste a crisis’ — and that’s how we are looking at this. We’re trying to look at this as an opportunity to reach more people and help more people.” 

Rietdyk says that providing immediate assistance — “making sure people have a bed and food in their belly” — is the priority right now. But, she adds, “as the weeks roll on, we’ll look at longer-term kind of plan and, hopefully, a longer-term outcome for people.”

​​​​​​​This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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