Last week, a 35-year-old woman died in Toronto after becoming stuck inside a clothing-donation bin. At her vigil, friends described Crystal Papineau as funny, generous, and kind. She’d often taken clothes from the city’s bins and distributed them to her friends: vulnerable, under-housed women like her. The night before she became trapped inside the bin, temperatures had dropped below zero, and the city’s women shelters were reportedly full. At least one news outlet has reported that she screamed for help but had died by the time rescue crews could free her body.
Papineau’s death was not an isolated incident. The Guardian reports that, including hers, there have been eight clothing-bin deaths in Canada since 2015 — one had occurred in Vancouver a little more than a week earlier. Many have demanded that organizations stop using them or start locking them, at least until a new design has been developed. In response to the public outcry, one Canadian manufacturer announced it would stop making the bins, for now.
But as many advocates are pointing out, donation bins aren’t the main issue here. The real problem is homelessness itself and the stigmatizing ways we talk about those who are homeless and precariously housed. It’s easy for us to criticize clothing bins, in other words; taking on the complexities of homelessness in Canada is a far more difficult proposition. As one longtime friend of Papineau’s told the CBC, “Right now, I’m seeing a narrative where this is being crafted as a death that happened for no reason. [But] there were lots of immediate reasons why it happened.”
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If we ever want to move toward solving the housing crisis, we need to start talking about those immediate reasons. This sort of conversation demands nuance, compassion, and also a sense of the scope of homelessness and poverty in Ontario and in Canada. About 35,000 people in this country experience homelessness on any given night, according to a 2016 report by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. That’s a population nearly the size of Timmins. The report also notes that while the housing crisis has historically affected mostly men, that is no longer the case.
More than 27 per cent of those who experience homelessness are women. Just under 20 per cent are youth. The number of older adults and seniors who have no place to go is growing. Families, in fact, tend to stay in shelters twice as long as individuals. Perhaps most alarming, an estimated 28 per cent to 34 per cent of the shelter population is Indigenous; at the same time, Indigenous people account for little more than 4 per cent of the population of Canada. These vulnerable populations deserve more — and better.
Stigma often informs popular narratives around homelessness, simplifying underlying causes to brutal effect. And while it’s essential to avoid painting some communities as more deserving of help than others, it’s also important to spotlight the complexities behind the housing crisis. So much of what links those who are homeless or precariously housed is a history of trauma — and, all too often, a flight from abuse. This is particularly true for women and members of the LGBTQ community.
The majority of homeless women surveyed in Canada — as much as 70 per cent — report abuse as their primary reason for entering the shelter system. And that abuse doesn’t always stop once their living situation changes. Other reports show that many women who are homeless will continue to experience violence on the streets or in shelters; more than 90 per cent of women who are homeless have experienced at least one assault in their lifetime. LGBTQ youth were far more likely than heterosexual, cisgender kids to say they’d left home because of abuse, violence, or an inability to get along with their parents.
Women, particularly, are also likely to be caught in what’s called hidden homelessness, a term that refers to those staying in unsafe or unsustainable living conditions — living in abusive homes because they cannot financially afford to leave, for example, or couch-surfing or living in overcrowded (and often unsanitary) buildings. Too often, when such situations do end, they end suddenly, forcefully, and without safety nets. A friend of Papineau’s, for instance, told media that the woman had been housed in an apartment — until she was assaulted and later banned from the premises.
An Ontario expert advisory panel reported in 2015 that most homelessness in the province is hidden and that, while shelter data can give an accurate picture of how the housing crisis is affecting men, it likely doesn’t capture the reality for vulnerable populations. One study in Vancouver estimated that for every person counted on the streets or in shelters, there are another 3.5 people experiencing hidden homelessness.
Banning clothing bins won’t make any of these complex challenges disappear. But it might finally force us to confront homelessness, poverty, and why we so often distance ourselves from those who need our help most. Safe, affordable housing should be a human right — not to mention a driving force behind our future feminism. Because nobody should have to die for a winter jacket.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.