In February 2021, Toronto Life published Tim MacFarlane’s story, which detailed his experience as frontline worker living in his car. Tim MacFarlane is a registered pharmacy technician who makes $63,000 a year––so how does someone like Tim become homeless? After deductions, taxes, union dues, and child support, Tim only brings home $2,000 a month, which, after subtracting his basic living expenses, makes renting an apartment nearly impossible.
While the circumstances that surround Tim’s story are unique, his precarious living situation is not. According to a 2016 Homeless Hub study, an estimated 85,000 Canadians are homeless, in one way or another, in any given year. While the dominant perception of homelessness is people sleeping on sidewalks, Tim MacFarlane explained that this couldn’t be farther from the truth:
“I thought I knew what homelessness looked like. It’s the people in the shelters and encampments. The guy sprawled over the sewer vents, trying to stay warm. The poor souls I used to give a few bucks to whenever I could. But those are just the visible homeless. I’m part of a much larger contingent. We’re the hidden homeless, the folks moving into a friend’s spare bedroom, couch-surfing, or huddling inside cars until we can just figure things out.”
What Tim’s story tells us, more than anything, is that homelessness is not a homogenous experience. For some, it means living in your car, for others, it means living in a tent or shelter. Misconceptions surrounding what causes homelessness, who experiences it, and what it looks like, only serves to further stigmatize those struggling. Homelessness can happen to anyone, and it is only through the lens of compassion that we can begin to tackle this ongoing crisis.
This article aims to examine the current state of homelessness in Toronto, including how the pandemic has impacted services. To gain insider insight, we spoke to Hania Ahmed, the Supervisor of Communications and Marketing at Homes First Society. Home's First Society have been serving the homeless community in Toronto for over 35 years, and have gone to great lengths to provide safe, supportive shelter spaces with physical distancing and various supports. From May 10th - 23rd, 50% of all Eric Pause Slow me down print sales will be donated to Home’s First Society. Click here to purchase.
HOMELESS IN A PANDEMIC
Roughly 2 percent of the global population currently experiences homelessness while another 20 percent lack adequate housing. Homelessness is a global crisis. Unfortunately, this pressing social issue has only been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. When Canadians were given strict 'stay at home' orders in March 2020, feelings of anxiety, panic, and uncertainty became the norm. However, for those sleeping rough, COVID-19 added another degree of complexity to an already unstable and precarious situation.
Unsurprisingly, vulnerable populations, especially those experiencing homelessness, are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection than those who are able to self isolate. According to a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Ontario's homeless population is five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the rest of the population. As a result, many individuals experiencing homelessness have decided to avoid the shelter system in favour of encampments. However, this has resulted in an ongoing battle between residents and the City of Toronto.
City officials have been serving eviction notices to encampment residents since the start of the pandemic, citing the safety and well-being of residents––as well as the surrounding community. However, as Simone Schmidt, a volunteer with the Encampment Support Network (ESN), explained in a recent interview with CBC: "Forcing the displacement of people who have nowhere else to be that is safer than the places that they have made for themselves during a global pandemic is egregious. It's going to cause a lot more stress and distress for people who are already living in a chaotic, difficult situation."
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam explains that she has been trying to get City Council and Mayor Tory to declare a shelter and homelessness crisis in Toronto for the past three years. She believes that if City Council has taken appropriate action against the homelessness crisis sooner, we would be in a much better position today: "The proliferation of encampments is a direct result of the failure of the government to take the housing crisis seriously.”
Hania Ahmed, the Supervisor of Communications and Marketing at Homes First Society, explains that while she understands why some have chosen encampments over shelters, their organization, in partnership with the City of Toronto, have been working hard to ensure their shelters are safe for residents. Home's First opened three hotel shelter programs and re-arranged existing dorm shelters since the start of the pandemic:
"While COVID-19 has changed how some people experiencing homelessness access supports, Homes First has continued to provide wrap-around services to those in our programs and will do so long after the pandemic ends."
Homes First Society's primary goal is to provide low-barrier access to shelter and supports to help those experiencing homelessness, including: harm reduction supports, physical and mental health care that includes health practitioners, case management, meals, and referrals. Ensuring that those experiencing homelessness have access to the support and services they need has been a primary focus of the Home's First team.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT HOMELESS SHELTERS
Multiple temporary housing sites were created in partnership with the City of Toronto at the beginning of the pandemic–some of which were created in new neighbourhoods. One of these shelters, located at the Roehampton Hotel in Midtown, has been at the centre of a heated community debate.
While some community members welcomed their new neighbours with open arms, others believed that the shelter was responsible for increased instances of crime in the area. Luci Brown, a midtown resident, explained in an August 2020 CBC article: "I feel like we're living in a nightmare." Brown was not alone in this sentiment. A group of like-minded Midtown residents organized a 'crusade' against 'tent people' from downtown Toronto who are now residents at the Roehampton Hotel. The protest––or 'crusade'––that took place on August 15th, 2020, right across the street from the temporary shelter, was met by a group of counter protesters eager to stand up for the rights of residents.
Unsurprisingly, many Roehampton Hotel residents felt hurt by the backlash. Jen Reece, who had been sleeping rough for a year and half before being temporarily housed in the area, explained: "I think they feel we don't belong here, we belong downtown with all the soup kitchens... I can't believe there will be protests — protesting humans, it's hard to believe."
'Home' is a foundation from which everything else grows. It is the first step towards independent living, providing people with the security, safety, and privacy we all deserve. As Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network and a co-lead of the Toronto Region Homelessness Response, explained in an interview with CBC: "If we really want to see an improvement in public health that's lasting, we have to bring housing into the fold." He continued: "Health and housing are inextricably linked."
To help people feel more comfortable with these spaces, Hania Ahmed urges community members to visit the shelters themselves. She explains that while many people may be nervous to visit a shelter, or have them in their neighbourhoods, they provide the necessary space and supports for many who want to take the first steps in stabilizing and rebuilding their lives:
"It is our belief that if you are unsure of shelters, a visit inside where you can meet staff and residents will change your mind. Shelters across Toronto do great work every day to provide supports to those who are vulnerable, and you can be a part of that by volunteering or supporting your local shelter."
While some may be quick to make judgements about people living in shelters, Hania explains that it is important to remember that people experience homelessness for an endless number of reasons: unaffordable housing, precarious work, mental health or addictions issues, a toxic home environment, a pandemic. Hania continues, "It is important to remember that very few people choose or want to be homeless."
If you or someone you love has never personally experienced homelessness, it may be difficult to understand the number of barriers people face in finding adequate and affordable housing. However, while some believe that homelessness is the result of a series of poor personal choices, being laid off, struggling with mental health/addiction issues, feeling unsafe at home, or experiencing any other traumatic event is not within an individual's control. The narrative that shifts blame away from government, corporations, and developers and onto society's most vulnerable is one that perpetuates the stigma associated with homelessness.
If you're unsure what you can do to address the homeless crisis, Hania left us with a few inspiring words: "Advocate for more affordable and supportive housing. Now more than ever we see how expensive the cost of living can be, and how we are all only a few paycheques away from not being able to afford a roof over our heads. With a strong infrastructure of affordable housing, and supports for those who need it, we can break the cycle of homelessness, and prevent many from ever experiencing it."