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Limited access to housing can make it difficult for some Canadians to stay safe during COVID-19

During COVID-19 shutdowns, Canadians were told that they needed to stay at home in order to reduce infection rates. In late March, as the pandemic first began to take hold in the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians in a televised address to “go home and stay home.

But for many, these public health guidelines proved to be more difficult to follow. Countless Canadians continue to struggle to access safe and affordable housing, putting them at even greater risk during the pandemic. 

A lack of affordable housing and low wages have been at the core of Canada’s housing problems. Nearly one in five Canadians are spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent and 53 per cent of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque

Though rental prices are dropping in certain cities during the pandemic, they remain high overall — especially in major urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver. This reality, combined with mass layoffs related to COVID-19, puts Canadians at risk of housing instability. 

Income support through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and rental subsidies have been implemented in some provinces in an attempt to ease the pressure on tenants, but some Canadians are still falling through the cracks. A study conducted in April by the community organization ACORN found that out of the more than 1,000 people they polled, 42 percent did not qualify for CERB or Employment Insurance (EI) during the pandemic, and that more than a third of people said they wouldn’t have enough money to pay rent on May 1.

In particular, COVID-19 has affected Indigenous communities where crowded and inadequate housing remains a long-standing issue. A report from the Canadian Urban Institute found that, compared to white Canadians, a greater number of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada reported that COVID-19 has had a major impact on their lives. 

This is unsurprising considering the conditions in many Indigenous communities. According to the 2016 census, about 23 per cent of First Nations people were living in crowded housing. For Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat (the four regions that make up the homeland of majority Inuit in Canada), that number was just over 40 per cent. Many communities also lack access to reliable sources of clean water

Without their essential needs being met, Indigenous communities are not equipped to protect themselves against COVID-19 outbreaks. A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on housing conditions for Indigenous people during COVID-19 concluded that “asking people to wash their hands and isolate in overcrowded homes without running water is like asking people, unable to afford bread, to eat cake.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the interconnectedness of housing and health, and how having a safe place to call home can protect individuals and communities during health crises. Though we tend to think about housing and health as two separate issues, there is significant data that disputes this belief. Researchers have found that inadequate housing has been linked to everything from asthma to depression to mortality rates among seniors

“Housing first” policies, where adequate housing is made available without qualifications, acknowledges the links between housing and health and has been widely shown to be effective at reducing, and in some cases — like in the city of Medicine Hat, Alta. — essentially eliminating homelessness when implemented thoroughly.

For Indigenous communities, the definition of housing first is expanded even further to include connections to community and the land. In a report by the University of Winnipeg and the Institute for Urban Studies, researchers looked at how to adapt housing first strategies in Indigenous communities. The report focused on Winnipeg, where an estimated 66 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous, and made recommendations based on consultations with local Elders and community leaders.

One example of what these changes might look like was at the intake stage: the report recommended that typical intake and assessment tools may not be appropriate in Indigenous contexts and that overly clinical and invasive intake processes could risk retraumatizing individuals. Overall, the report recommended taking a more holistic view when addressing homelessness and, unlike the individualism supported by typical housing first strategies, emphasized the interdependence of communities.  

The connection between health and housing was also made clear in the report. “For Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness,” the report stated, “having access to culturally relevant, suitable, and affordable housing contributes directly to improved health, wellness, and stability.” 

Though most responses to Canada’s housing and health crises have been inadequate overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented some positive examples of how homelessness can be addressed when governments do choose to prioritize housing issues. In Toronto, the city made around 1,200 hotel rooms available for those in the shelter system and, in some limited cases, the pandemic has made the process of finding shelter faster and safer. 

A similar sense of urgency could be applied to the post-COVID-19 world, advocates argue. Naheed Dosani, a physician who works with homeless populations, argued in Policy Options that the pandemic has shown that new and transformative policies are possible when it comes to homelessness. 

When we have come through this crisis, are we prepared to push people back out to where they were, on the streets and in shelters?” writes Dosani. “Or are we ready to accept that we have the solution to homelessness in our hands? We just need the moral and political will to make it happen.”