For those experiencing homelessness, lives already hanging by a thread ‘snapped’ by COVID-19, say advocates

More than a third of Canadians say they’ve been homeless or know someone who has — leading to health problems and even deaths that advocates worry could worsen as encampments multiply during the pandemic.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness says the ranks of people lacking a roof over their head will grow without urgent investments in affordable housing during pandemic recovery and as provincial plans preventing landlords from evicting tenants are lifted.

The Encampment Support Network Toronto, a group of volunteers who check in on people, says the number of encampments in the city has increased, with more than 100 groups of people living in tents during COVID-19. VancouverEdmonton and Hamilton have also reported encampments.

In Toronto, encampments popped up after outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred in the city’s homeless shelters. Then, after two-metre physical distancing measures were enforced at shelters, people were provided free, temporary housing in apartments and hotels.

But those weren’t a perfect solution either, said Rev. Leigh Kern of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. 

Temporary housing doesn’t create a stable situation for people, she said, and rules against visitors in hotel rooms, along with scarcer overdose prevention services, could also be contributing to increases in overdose deaths.

Advocates say homeless camps have been growing during the pandemic in several parts of the country. This encampment, in a parking lot next to Vancouver’s Crab Park, was dismantled in June following a court injunction, but people needing shelter have moved to other tent cities. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kern handed out her last tent two weeks ago to a man who was just evicted.

“The beds are full so it’s really hard as a worker and as a priest to see people in these dire situations.”

‘I didn’t realize how hard it is’

Last month, Norman Black, 62, became homeless for the first time after he experienced a severe panic attack precipitated by a break down in the computer he uses to keep his mind occupied.

“I lasted five days and nights, and I was losing my mind staring at the walls,” Black recalled.

He moved out to save up for the repair, but he now regrets that decision.

“I didn’t realize how hard it is for homelessness. And now, I’ve looked at eight different rooms [to rent],” he said. “Nobody’s replied. So, I just keep looking.”

A man and woman offer water bottles to people living in the homeless encampment in front of Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre. The city has tried to remove the tents and people living in them from the property. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Black said a doctor advised he quit his physically demanding job as a city sanitation worker decades ago to ease his anxiety. Social anxiety now makes it difficult for him to tolerate staying in a shelter.

“I can’t handle strangers,” he said.

The interaction triggers symptoms such as dizziness, pressure in his chest and trouble breathing, he said.

In contrast, Black said, he now feels safe with his fellow tent dwellers at Alexandra Park, who call him Pops.

Health suffers without supports

Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and homeless health advocate in Toronto, said COVID-19 has perpetuated inequities for people experiencing homelessness in Canada.

He said it exacerbated their physical and mental health needs when access to social support, drop ins and respite also dropped because of physical distancing requirements.

“What I’ve seen from people experiencing severe and persistent mental illness in our communities is that they were already hanging by a thread before the pandemic and that thread is now snapped,” Dosani said.

The Toronto Homeless Memorial features a stained glass top with a list of names honouring people who died while experiencing homelessness. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Symptoms like depression and psychosis can then worsen.

“What I’ve seen with my own eyes is a strong desire for people who have mental illness to be more connected.”

Instead, he said, people experiencing homelessness have been treated like criminals in parks and public spaces when they have nowhere else to go.

Before COVID-19, Dosani said the average lifespan of those experiencing chronic homelessness ranged from 34 to 47 years.