What Ontario is getting right (and wrong) about homelessness during COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with professor Stephen Gaetz about the challenges facing the homeless population during the pandemic — and strengthening supports now and in the future
By Mary Baxter - Published on May 11, 2020
A worker at the Sanctuary, a respite centre in Toronto, carries tents to be distributed to members of the homeless community on April 19. (Chris Young/CP)

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Stephen Gaetz is keeping a close eye on how homeless populations are faring as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in Ontario. The York University education professor is president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, an organization that researches homelessness and poverty with partners in Canada and around the world, publishing findings through its website, the Homeless Hub

While Gaetz says that the virus hasn’t affected homeless communities in Ontario to the degree he initially thought it might, he is concerned about what will happen next. According to Statistics Canada, as of mid-April, four in 10 employed Canadians who had seen their workplace cut hours by more than half feared they would lose their jobs entirely. Experts predict that there could be a second — and possibly a third — wave of the virus, and it’s possible that jobs that have disappeared during the pandemic won’t return, he says: “If we don't learn from this in the first wave and learn and apply our learnings, we're going to have a worse time with the next wave.” 

TVO.org recently caught up with Gaetz to find out how COVID-19 has affected people experiencing homelessness — and how we can strengthen supports now and in the future.

TVO.org: What are some of the greatest challenges that people experiencing homelessness are facing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Stephen Gaetz: Chronically homeless people’s health deteriorates quite dramatically by being exposed to homelessness over time. The research suggests that a 50-year-old person who is chronically homeless has the body and health of a 65-year-old. That means that we have a population that, if it's exposed to something like coronavirus — that basically has the worst health outcomes for people who have pre-existing conditions, who are older, who have lung problems, that kind of thing — they're very vulnerable. 

But the system response that we've structured for years also [creates vulnerability] because we offer people congregate-living environments in shelters. People are often forced out of the shelters for the day, and they don't have access all through the day to where to wash your hands or washrooms, that kind of thing. 

TVO.org: What are we getting right about protecting those who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness?

Gaetz: We're seeing in Canada that, generally, politicians of all political stripes are listening to the doctors and the scientists. And that's a good thing. There's been transformation in how we work that government has supported. The injection of money into the economy has been important, because think of what happened after the last economic crisis and conservative parties in North America pushed back against any kind of investment. 

One of the good things that we're seeing in Toronto — and I'd say in other communities in Ontario — is the response to homelessness is pretty impressive. They've managed to get a lot of people into hotels, and they've also managed to try and rework some of the shelter spaces so that there's more opportunity for social distancing (although it's still difficult in a shelter because people are walking around). Like, you can't confine people to a cot for 24 hours a day. 

TVO.org: Is anything about the current situation raising red flags?

Gaetz: The economy has taken a massive hit. Many people will not have work at the end of it. We may be dealing with a much larger population of people experiencing homelessness with a potential spike in evictions once the benefits end and with the rising unemployment. 

I think we can reliably predict — unless something is done to address income and housing support — that we're going to see a rise in homelessness into a system that is not designed to really provide people with the help they need in a crisis. 

I feel like we kind of planned our way to this point, and we're figuring things out as we go. But we may be looking at a situation where the current response to homelessness will become overwhelmed. So the planning on what happens after needs to be happening. And I'm not sure to what degree that is. I don't think people are fools about the possibility of crisis after the first wave, but it's something we should be paying attention to. 

TVO.org: What more could we be doing?

Gaetz: One of the things that I think has been interesting is more talking about guaranteed basic income — even in the United States — which is really surprising. Many of your audience will recall that, in Ontario, there was a pilot project on this very thing. In Spain, they're talking about that very seriously. And you hear it in Canada. There are a lot of people talking about that. 

Economic stimulus would also help. Canada has a National Housing Strategy that is looking to build out housing over the next 10 years because we do have a housing shortage, and the cost of housing is really high. What if we boosted the investment and building of affordable housing over the next three years — like, really went all-in as a make-work kind of New Deal project — and not just built housing but affordable housing and invested in this? That would take some of the stress off; it would get housing in the market. 

I’m also thinking of what happened after the 2008 financial crisis, when hedge funds started buying up housing, apartments, and apartment buildings. It was called the "financialization" of their housing markets: a lot of that housing was bought up as a financial asset but not an income-generating asset, so often that housing is bought up and left empty. That pulls housing out of the market, putting further strain on the cost of housing. You create your own wealth by buying things and making them scarce. 

There's no reason that that's not going to happen again — and maybe even on a bigger scale. And, so, if government is going to build more affordable housing, we also need to make sure that the housing that exists is accessible to people, too. So what would be a good post-first-wave move to is to come up with ways to counter the financialization of the housing market. The best way to do that probably is through taxation. Like housing that is unoccupied for two months, there's a massive tax on it. 

So there are things we can do that could be very bold going forward — and really helpful.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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

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