Source: John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette

For several months now, tent cities have been multiplying across Canada. Although homelessness is not a new phenomenon, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Three million Canadians lost their jobs between February and April, and rents remain high due to the housing bubble, worsening the crisis. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that new segments of the population are being thrown out onto the streets. These new tent cities are reminiscent of the Hooverville settlements that appeared in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Homelessness has skyrocketed in all major Canadian cities. In Vancouver, at least 450 tents have been set up in a city park with access to only one toilet. Fifteen camps are currently in place in Hamilton. In Montreal, the number of people experiencing homelessness has doubled since March and several new camps have sprung up, such as along Notre-Dame Street and in Montreal North. While homelessness has previously been associated with issues of mental health, addiction and social exclusion, this is changing as the economic crisis puts more people on the streets. “I’ve lost my job and my housing because of the pandemic,” says one of the Montreal campers. More people are now facing their first experience being homeless. 

Makeshift camps are a health hazard for those who are forced to live there. Most of these camps do not have access to running water, making it very difficult to follow recommended hygiene measures. In some cases, it is possible to have access to some basic facilities, but access is so limited that social distancing is made impossible. 

But the situation is no better in shelters, where overcrowding remains a problem. In Toronto, 649 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in shelters. Many people prefer to stay in their tents rather than go to a shelter, as in the case of one resident of the Notre-Dame Street camp who explained, “In times of COVID, we don’t want to go and pile up like cattle in shelters.” The newly homeless also find the crowded shelters unsafe in other ways, given the mental health and addiction problems of longer-term residents.

It must also be taken into account that in the current atmosphere of crisis and uncertainty, the spirit of solidarity and community that has been created in the camps is a source of comfort for its residents. Most testify that they feel safer there. “I felt safer than on the street,” one tent city resident says. “If I had a hard day, I could go to 50 people and cry on their shoulders if I needed it.”

That said, conditions in the camps remain extremely difficult, especially since homeless people remain stigmatized and humiliated. In Moncton, the city has installed signs to regulate the behaviour of homeless people, as if the problem of homelessness is due to a lack of good manners. But there is no evidence that camps degrade public space. On the contrary, as one of the residents of the Notre-Dame Street camp explains, “Here, we are not disturbing. We don’t hang out in the park across the street. We’re picking up after ourselves. There was someone who was messy, he was told to pick up after himself or leave. We ask the people who want to do drugs to do it in their tent so that nobody sees them. If you don’t live here with respect, you leave.”

Politicians are taking advantage of the current situation to attack the homeless, as in the case of the Liberals in British Columbia, who claim there is a problem of “public safety” without proposing any concrete measures to help people living in camps. This reveals the complete hypocrisy of politicians, who play the safety card to create a diversion and give themselves an excuse to dismantle tent cities without having to worry about finding an alternative.

On the other hand, some “left-wing” politicians make big speeches about helping the homeless. But it is just empty rhetoric when it is not linked to concrete actions to really improve the situation of homeless people. The City of Montreal has announced that it has opened several new shelters, but some are already full. According to the city’s official census 6,000 people are currently homeless; however, at the time of writing this article, only 1,104 emergency shelter beds are available for the winter period, which is vastly insufficient. During her campaign for mayor, Valérie Plante committed to building 12,000 social or affordable housing units by 2021. But a report published in June revealed that not a single unit had been built last fall.

The response from cities and governments is completely inadequate, and the situation is only worsening. With the end of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the end of the various local measures to suspend evictions, many Canadians are reporting that it is difficult to make ends meet at the end of the month. A recent survey indicated that one in four Canadian tenants are worried about paying their rent next month. In addition, the homelessness figures are incomplete because they do not take into account people who have lost their homes and are staying with friends. It is not clear what is happening to these people now that a second wave of lockdown measures are being implemented (as is currently the case in Montreal). Furthermore, as job losses continue, this will lead to evictions and more people on the streets.

However, neither camps nor shelters are a permanent solution for the homeless. The various cities are all indicating their willingness to dismantle the camps, and the places available in the shelters are always temporary. But the housing crisis is nothing new. In Montreal, rents have increased by 40 per cent in five years. In an article published last year, Fightback already explained that the laws of the capitalist market and the race for profits by real estate investors would continue to push up rents and create a shortage of affordable housing. As a result, five per cent of Canadians have already experienced homelessness. This is a symptom that once again reveals the absurdity of the capitalist system in which we live: a system in which thousands of people live on the streets while luxury high-rise condos continue to be built. One estimate put the number of vacant houses in Canada at 1.34 million, which is the equivalent of about six houses for every homeless person.

With winter approaching, there is an urgent need to address this crisis. There is a question of finding an alternative solution as soon as possible for all those currently living in tent cities. With the almost total absence of tourism due to the pandemic, thousands of hotel rooms are unoccupied and could be requisitioned by cities to house people. The same goes for empty condo towers and all other vacant accommodations. Rent increases must also be frozen and evictions prevented. 

Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that these are not viable long-term solutions, since no one can decently live in a hotel room indefinitely. A massive investment program to build social housing is needed. This would be possible by taking just a fraction of the one trillion dollars that sleeps in the bank vaults of Canadian companies. But this would strike at the very heart of the capitalist system, in the pockets of rich investors and bosses. 

The pandemic has highlighted the huge holes in Canada’s social safety net, which leave the poorest people behind. It is high time to put an end to a system that tolerates people living in inhumane conditions, and that will only continue to throw more and more people into misery.