The Current

Pandemic is creating a new type of homelessness, says outreach worker

A Halifax-based street outreach worker says that since the pandemic started, he’s met more and more people who have become homeless for the first time. But for other homeless individuals, the pandemic has meant getting a roof over their head for the first time in years.

New COVID-19 supports mean other homeless individuals finding housing they need

A homeless person is seen in downtown Toronto, on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

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A Halifax-based street outreach worker says that since the pandemic started, he's met more and more people who have likely become homeless for the first time.

"Everywhere I look … I see a place where last year or six months ago, there wasn't somebody sleeping. But now there's people in every park, there's people on so many different benches," said Eric Jonsson, program co-ordinator with Navigator Street Outreach.

"I've been doing this for about 10 years or so, and in previous years … you really had to look. But now you don't have to look very hard to find people who are homeless."

COVID-19 has been particularly hard on Canada's homeless population. With shelters cutting back the number of beds they offer to facilitate physical distancing, many cities have seen homeless encampments popping up in parks as people try to find a safe place to sleep.

One Toronto organization warned earlier this year that the pandemic could push more people into homelessness as people who have lost their jobs struggle to pay their bills.

Eric Jonsson is the program co-ordinator at Navigator Street Outreach in Halifax. (Submitted by Eric Jonsson)

Jonsson is seeing the pandemic's economic toll firsthand.

While mental health and addiction have historically been barriers to people accessing housing, he said that now it seems as though many people simply can't pay their rent.

"We're seeing not only more people, but a whole new, I don't know, type of homeless person," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"There's a lot of people who are newly homeless and the main driving factor is there's just no place for them to live."

An affordability crisis 

Dr. Andrew Bond, medical director at Inner City Health Associates in Toronto, says Canada's increasing affordability crisis is part of the problem.

While housing prices have been rising, pandemic benefits like the CERB have been difficult to get into the hands of people living on the streets, he said.

"The ability to match income to available, affordable places is certainly a huge challenge that's increased throughout COVID," said Bond.

"People are opting, when they don't have any other options, to go the streets, to go to tents and encampments, to try and get as much distance as they can to keep themselves safe," he added. 

"It's very much a self-protective practice that's happening amidst an economic crisis at the same time."

A homeless encampments in Montreal. Sites like this have been popping up in cities across the country since the pandemic began. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

But the pandemic hasn't been all bad news when it comes to addressing homelessness.

Bond said he recognized early on in the health crisis that there was a need for standalone isolation facilities for homeless individuals who were exposed to, or tested positive for the virus. And governments have responded by pouring cash into those kinds of supports.

"In February and March, we were fortunate enough, along with many municipalities across the country, to receive provincial funding … as well as a large federal release of funds that were fairly unrestricted, to allow us to do this kind of work, but also to really advocate for the need for outreach testing and surveillance within the shelters," Bond said.

Raquel Winslow, who lives in Coquitlam, B.C., is grateful for some of the changes the pandemic has brought.

After living on the streets for several years, she's found relief at a shelter that opened in her city because of the pandemic.

"I was just, like, ecstatic ... to know that I might have a bed and a room of my own after six years," she said. "I mean, you really value that when you don't have it."

I feel safe for the first time in a while.- Raquel Winslow

Winslow now has her own bedroom in a hotel, where the shelter is being run out of.

And she said the program is working and that staff have been helping her get her life back on track.

Raquel Winslow, who was homeless for several years, now has a roof over her head because of a shelter that was set up during the COVID-19 pandemic (Submitted by Phoenix Society)

"People are starting to, you know, trust that maybe there are people here who want to do something more than just give you somewhere to sleep at night," she said.

"I feel safe for the first time in a while."

'There needs to be trust, respect,' says doctor

Bond said building trust between homeless individuals and the communities they are being supported by is key to making them feel welcome.

But not everyone has been happy about shelters springing up during the pandemic. 

Demonstrators took to the streets in Toronto's midtown neighbourhood this summer after three city-run homeless shelters opened up there. Some residents say the shelters have made their neighbourhood less safe, while others argue people must show empathy and educate themselves about homelessness and addiction.

Dr. Andrew Bond is the medical director at Inner City Health Associates in Toronto. (Submitted by Andrew Bond)

"Any time you move any group of people into a new place, to a new community, there's bound to be relationship challenges and sort of relationship-building that needs to happen," he said. 

"In order to have that happen, there needs to be trust, respect and confidence in what's happening in that space."

It's a shame it took something like COVID for people to see that people need a home and that we're all the same.- Raquel Winslow

We also have to start seeing each other as human beings, Raquel says.

She said she feels like the pandemic has been her chance for people to notice her.

"It's a shame it took something like COVID for people to see that people need a home and that we're all the same," she said.

"That shouldn't happen in a place like Canada."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Mary-Catherine McIntosh and Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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