Facing down winter and COVID-19, Canada's homeless are struggling
TORONTO -- Across the country, people are being told to stay home and stay apart as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. But when you don’t have a place to live, following those guidelines and staying safe from the virus is a huge challenge.
With homeless shelters reducing capacity to allow for physical distancing and few options for housing, more people are camping out on the streets, in city parks, or, as in one B.C. woman’s case, a beat-up van.
Tucked behind a shopping mall sits a 1988 Dodge Ram -- 50-year-old Kathy Denton’s current home.
Early in the pandemic, she became homeless for the first time, forced from her apartment after her relationship fell apart.
“My stress level was through the roof,” Denton told CTV News. “I cannot explain how bad it was at that time for me.”
She’s also unemployed and thus can't afford a place of her own.
“How can you afford to rent a place if are not bringing in at least $2,000 a month?” she pointed out.
The van -- which has no running water or stove -- was only supposed to be a temporary solution.
“I am on the housing list,” Denton said. “Maybe I will get in, but it is not going to be right now.”
Nov. 22 is National Housing Day, which began in 1998 when the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee declared that homelessness was a national disaster in Canada. In 2020, housing is more important than ever amid a pandemic that makes gathering indoors in large numbers with strangers a potentially dangerous situation.
As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in B.C., space in short-term housing and shelters is increasingly difficult to find.
Jeremy Hunka helps run one of Vancouver’s oldest shelters, the Union Gospel Mission, and tells CTV News that “we don’t have enough places for people to go.”
There’s more demand for beds now than during the pandemic’s first wave, he explained.
In B.C., a ban on evictions that was put in place early in the pandemic was lifted on Sept. 1, potentially contributing to the number of those experiencing homelessness in the province.
“The need is up, space is down, threat level up,” Hunka said. “People are stressed. Some people are getting sick.”
According to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, up to 235,000 Canadians spend time in homeless shelters each year.
Across the country, infections are up among the homeless. On Nov. 6, public health officials in Manitoba announced there was an outbreak at Oscar’s Place, a homeless shelter in The Pas, Man.
At a shelter in Calgary, there have been three separate outbreaks.
“There are 60 clients who have tested positive, and four staff,” Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, told CTV News.
Their most recent outbreak started earlier this month, only weeks after they had lifted their outbreak status to allow more to access the shelter.
So far, 25 of the residents who tested positive have since recovered.
In Ontario, the battle for support for the homeless is only heating up. Activists staged a demonstration outside of the condo Toronto Mayor John Tory lives in on Sunday, constructing green “foam domes” as snow fell around them to highlight the need for more housing help.
Some shelters are trying to keep their residents safe by putting up glass dividers between beds, something that’s been done in Toronto’s Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place. The facility, part of the city’s winter plan for expanding shelter services, has been criticized by activists for the lack of privacy and the prison-like design.
In addition to the virus, worsening weather is a major concern for this housing crisis. Snow and dropping temperatures can turn living on the streets into a death sentence, even in a year without a deadly pandemic.
This leaves many of those experiencing homelessness with an impossible choice: try and find a space in a crowded shelter and risk contracting COVID-19, or stay in an outdoor encampment and risk the freezing weather. Many cities also have bylaws against encampments, and will issue eviction notices to tent residents as well.
Denton knows winter will be a challenge.
“I would rather not be living in my van, please,” she said.
Another hurdle is the hefty parking tickets she gets, just from having to park her van somewhere every night, one more example of the obstacles put in the way of those experiencing homelessness.