Source: The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

Since the implementation of lockdown measures, politicians at every level of government have put a great emphasis on social distancing and self-imposed quarantine, urging everybody to “do your part, stay home.” But what happens to those who have no home to go to? 

As of May 30, there were  451 COVID-19 cases connected to the shelter system in at least 11 of Toronto’s shelters, up from 135 known cases a month prior. Two of these cases have resulted in death. These numbers were likely an underestimation at the time, since the city has not conducted mass testing. We can expect that at the time of writing, almost a month after the most recent official figures were released, the situation has worsened. 

It is not surprising that Toronto’s homeless shelters have become a hotbed for COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic Toronto’s shelters were already at 100% capacity. The way that the shelters are organized makes it impossible to practice social distancing. While the government preaches that everybody must be at least six feet apart at all times, according to Toronto’s Shelter and Respite Standards, the spacing between beds in a shelter only needs to be 2.5 feet apart! 

In a CBC interview Robert Boast, a homeless cancer patient, said he’d “rather sleep on the street” than go back to the shelter because “at least the streets have fresh air” and he can pick and choose the people he wants to be around. In the face of rampant infection and overcrowding, avoiding shelters becomes the responsible choice. 

However, this comes with its own risks. In addition to the inherent dangers of living on the streets, police harassment of the homeless has been stepped up in recent weeks in the name of fighting COVID-19. Police are empowered to ticket anybody who “loiters”  in public in order to enforce quarantine, and have targeted people living on the streets, in public parks and encampments. One man received more than 15 tickets for taking refuge in a city park. He is not alone. These fines can amount to $880 to $1600 per ticket—the cost of rent in many places across the province. Fining the poor for their precarious living conditions and an inability to physically distance only maintains their poverty. But, this is not a concern for our governments. Perhaps the City of Toronto should fine itself for violating its own social distancing guidelines by overcrowding shelters!

While the 9,000 homeless people in Toronto are faced with the options of sleeping on the street and getting fined, or going to a shelter and getting COVID-19, hotels and condos are full of empty rooms. They put their emptiness on display at night when they turn on the room lights in heart shapes “to spread hope”. Surely Toronto’s homeless are filled with a feeling of warmth when they look up at the bright lights at night.

Government half-measures

Despite having months to prepare for the pandemic, every level of government failed to act on behalf of the safety and well-being of those facing homelessness. After months of inaction, the City of Toronto came under a lot of community pressure to deal with this crisis back in April. Since then, the city has slowly rolled out new services. As of June 22, the city claims to have moved 3,125 people out of the shelter system and into temporary housing facilities in order to make physical distancing possible in the shelters. These temporary facilities include hotels, community centers and apartments. In addition, the city opened two temporary housing locations with a total of 450 beds for homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 to socially isolate.

Even though the city finally invested in temporary facilities, they are insufficient and many of Toronto’s 9,000 homeless people still have to sleep in the streets, as evidenced by the tent encampments popping up around the city. If the overwhelming majority of Toronto’s homeless cannot practice physical disancing, the virus will continue to spread. We cannot stop the spread without immediately housing everyone

Right to housing or right to profit?

The government has been forced to provide housing to a fraction of Toronto’s homeless population, but this is a temporary measure. Once the pandemic has passed, thousands of homeless people being provided temporary shelter right now will be thrown back onto the streets. In order to properly address the homelessness crisis, we must first understand how it came about in the first place.

While homelessness has become steadily worse in Toronto as housing prices climbed due to the housing bubble, the root of the problem is not the housing bubble itself. Under capitalism, homelessness exists in every country, to greater or lesser extents. It is a natural result of production for profit instead of need. Housing may be readily available, but as long as those who need it don’t have money, or those who build housing can make more money by catering to someone else, the market does not provide. This has become especially clear in Toronto since 2009, when developers began pouring money into building luxury homes. They drove up prices, and drove out working-class people, pushing them ever closer to the brink of poverty.  At the time of writing, the average monthly price of renting a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,213—the highest in all of Canada. Meanwhile, a full-time minimum wage worker makes only $2,240 per month! With rents so high and wages so low, workers are being pushed out of their neighborhoods and further from their jobs. Under these conditions, for many low-wage workers all it takes is one month of financial hardship to become homeless. The crying contradiction between luxury and destitution flourishing in the same city is the logical outcome of capitalism.

We cannot expect our governments to solve this problem. As we have explained previously, attempts to address homelessness range from ineffectual to ridiculous. The reason for this is simple: real estate is Canada’s largest sector, accounting for 15% of economic output. It is an important component of Canadian capitalism. All levels of government have shown over the years that they serve the landlords, condo developers and financiers who profit from the housing market—not the workers and the unemployed. John Tory and the rest of Toronto city council have shown which side they are on with their policy of fining homeless people and tearing down their camps. Doug Ford’s Conservatives are also responsible for the crisis we see today. In their first year in office they cut billions of dollars worth of programs for workers and unemployed, and some of these cuts directly contributed to the homelessness crisis. They eliminated the rent cap on new buildings, cut legal aid, and cut funding to the City of Toronto.

Housing for all

As in so many other areas, the pandemic has accentuated and laid bare the tensions inherent in capitalism. When pushed by the crisis, the government began to provide housing for the homeless. What is preventing them from going further, or from providing housing in normal times? Nothing but the fact that housing is owned and controlled by the capitalists. They would rather keep their units empty than allow anybody to live there rent-free. It is estimated that 66,000 properties in Toronto are empty. This means that if every homeless person was given seven properties, there would still be 3,000 left over! A socialist government would put these empty properties to immediate use, as well as invest in a massive program of quality social housing.

The wealth exists in society for everyone to have a place to live, and a good quality of life in general. This wealth is being hoarded by a tiny elite. The workers and unemployed must unite against the capitalists and the state that reinforces their power. There is no force in society more powerful than the working class, who create all of the wealth that is currently concentrated in the hands of the capitalists. With the proper organization, the workers and unemployed will form an unstoppable force.

We must demand public housing for all, as well as anything else that is necessary for a safe and dignified life.

Seize all empty properties!

Expropriate the property development firms and run them under workers’ control!

Housing based on need, not profits!

Workers and unemployed unite against capitalism!