Governments can end homelessness during this pandemic — and keep it that way

The “new normal” should include accessible restrooms, hand-washing stations, and housing
Photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash
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If this global pandemic has shown us anything, it’s what’s most important to us. Some of us have been powering through self-isolation by making frequent calls to our loved ones. Others, fortunate to have solid internet connections, have been binge-watching shows or learning new skills from video tutorials. Others still have mobilized networks of mutual support, attending to our friends’ (or our own) job precarity and income loss.

But the most vital things in our lives — next to access to free, quality healthcare and perhaps reliable communications, such as phone, radio or the internet — have proven to be food and shelter. This crisis, which obliges us to stay “home,” has prompted a collective reminder of what constitute the bare essentials, staples that the most vulnerable of populations have only transient access to.

The crowd of participants, volunteers, and social workers quickly attracted a police presence.

With restaurants and libraries closed by official emergency orders, homeless people are left with few places to relieve themselves and — crucially in the COVID-19 era — to wash their hands. Shelters, too, have had to accept fewer people to accommodate physical distancing measures. This has forced thousands of homeless to fend for themselves outdoors, facing increased policing and ticketing amid state-of-emergency measures, as homeless advocacy groups scramble to offer their services in safe (and legal) ways.

I had just begun volunteering for Resilience Montreal day shelter when new province- and city-wide regulations were declared. During the last week of March, Resilience had to suspend the public use of its indoor centre and move its meal service outdoors to a park across the street. However, the crowd of participants, volunteers, and social workers quickly attracted a police presence.


Fortunately, some municipalities have quickly developed principled responses to homelessness in the context of this emergency. In Montreal, for instance, a few new overnight shelters opened to help with participant overflow, including at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Complexe Guy Favreau, and Bonsecours Market, and there have been efforts to house the homeless in vacant hotels while they await COVID-19 test results.

The city also partnered with community organizations like Resilience to open more outdoor day shelters. Such hubs have popped up in a handful of parks across the city, providing restrooms, hand-washing stations, and a few daily hot meal services.

While the money, labour, and supplies that the city government has contributed is laudable, we must hold them to account so that these measures are maintained following the pandemic. We must also hold other municipalities that have been failing on this issue up to a higher standard.

Indeed, COVID-19 has demonstrated that reliable housing is vital to public health. It has also shown us how efficiently various levels of government are able to respond to an issue like homelessness during an emergency, which makes one wonder if these responses can be a permanent fixture in the “new normal.”

The right to housing is not a novel idea: it has been enshrined in Article 25(1) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights since 1948. In 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living,” including housing. Canada is a signatory to both of these conventions. More recently, the right to housing was confirmed in federal legislation last June, when the National Housing Strategy Act was signed into law. The Act upholds Canada’s promise to international covenants and declares housing a fundamental human right, “essential” to a person’s dignity and well-being, and crucial in building sustainable communities and a strong national economy.

Funding for programs such as Housing First — an initiative to move homeless people into stable, long-term housing — or social housing developments are some examples that can make good on Canada’s claim to endorse housing as a human right.

The legislation creates two accountability bodies — the National Housing Council and Federal Housing Advocate — to research and advise on housing issues. While these mechanisms seem promising, the outcomes will only be in the form of recommendations to territorial, provincial, and municipal governments. Jurisdiction over property and civil rights rests with the provinces, meaning federal protocols on such matters are generally unenforceable.

Regardless of the jurisdictional authority, government bodies are mandated to take care of their constituents’ needs, including homeless constituents, and they must take lessons from COVID-19. This pandemic has uncovered Canada’s shortcomings when it comes to dependable housing rights for our most vulnerable populations. Funding for programs such as Housing First — an initiative to move homeless people into stable, long-term housing — or social housing developments are some examples that can make good on Canada’s claim to endorse housing as a human right.

Reliable housing can transform a person’s life. COVID-19 has shown the weaknesses of our current approach to private, market-driven property, and this pandemic must inform future strategies. Housing is not merely a building in which to live; it is essential to survival and protection, and a pillar of public health. If cities like Montreal can find the resources to support the homeless during this unprecedented crisis, they — along with provincial and federal governments — should be able to sustain a substantive right to housing.

There are so many ways to experience this catastrophe: some people have been affected firsthand by the virus, while others have been overwhelmed by its incidental effects. Nevertheless, it has revealed what is most essential to us. If we are being told to stay “home,” we all need to have a place to call home.

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