Nearly all of Canada’s 25 most populous municipalities have seen a “visible increase” in homeless encampments since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Even in 2019, the average Canadian was spending nearly half of their income on housing. The COVID-19 pandemic hit an already struggling population and drove millions of Canadians into unemployment and a more precarious life, forcing tens of thousands into homelessness. For many, life on the street comes with a death sentence.
Death toll rises
According to Statistics Canada, more than 235,000 people experience homelessness in any given year, and 25,000 to 35,000 people may be experiencing homelessness on any given night. These estimates are sure to be low, as they rely on volunteers conducting surveys, and observing people on the street, missing those who are out of sight. Along with the increase in the homeless population, homeless deaths are rising at unprecedented levels all across Canada. A recent report from the B.C. Coroners Service on homeless deaths in the province reported at least 247 deaths in 2022, up from 141 the previous year and 129 the year before that. The city of Toronto reported similar numbers with 221 deaths in 2021, up from 144 in 2020, and 128 in 2019. This increase amounts to one person dying every two days.
There is a severe lack of data around homeless deaths. Toronto and British Columbia are the only places regularly collecting and publishing reports. Because of this there are no national statistics to demonstrate the scale of the problem. This lack of information pushed a group of physicians in Hamilton to carry out their own study, and they identified at least 29 people in their city who died while homeless between June, 2021, and May, 2022. In that study, the average age at death was 38 years old. This horrific figure stands in contrast to the city’s average life expectancy of 81 years old. Homelessness means a premature death for those forced onto the street, and for many, a death that won’t even be counted in any statistics.
In the places where data is available, the leading cause of homeless deaths is overdose. In BC, overdoses made up 79 per cent of homeless deaths in 2021. This shows the extent of the opioid crisis in Canada. As is generally the case, the most vulnerable layers in society are being crushed beneath the weight of the crisis of capitalism. Drugs are a coping mechanism for dealing with the poverty and hopelessness many people experience while surviving on the streets.
The services available to homeless people are far less than sufficient. Shelters have shown to be Ill equipped to handle any increase in homelessness, as many were at capacity before the rise in homelessness, especially during the winter. In addition, many don’t want to go to shelters that don’t allow pets and alcohol, or force couples to separate. Ultimately, shelters are not a long term solution. The only way to eliminate homelessness is to go to the root of the problem.
The cost of living crisis
One source of this surge in homelessness can be found in the rising cost of housing hitting Canadians across the country. A national report on rent prices in 2022 states that rent has risen 12.4 per cent over the last year with no sign of slowing down, with a 4.9 per cent increase over the last three months of that year. Rent has risen the fastest for the most expensive cities, with Vancouver and Toronto rents up 24.3 per cent and 23.7 per cent, respectively. In those provinces as a whole, average rents for purpose-built apartments and condos rose 16 per cent in British Columbia and 15.3 per cent in Ontario annually while Alberta followed closely behind at 15 per cent. However, the prize for rising rent went to Nova Scotia with a massive 24.9 per cent increase. How can Canadians be expected to pay these exorbitant prices with wages lagging far behind inflation?
The average rent in Canada at the end of 2022 was $1,722 for a one bedroom apartment and $2,139 for a two bedroom. A worker who makes the federal minimum wage ($15.55) and works 40 hrs a week would earn a net monthly income of $2,488. A single person living in Vancouver or Toronto has estimated monthly costs (not including rent) of $1,315 and $1,377 respectively. Edmonton and Hamilton tell a similar story. This combination has had deadly consequences for the most unfortunate who’ve been priced out of their homes.
Government (lack of) response
The government’s efforts to solve the crisis have been lackluster to say the least. The federal 2022 budget included plans to invest $4 billion to ”help create 100,000 new housing units over the next five years”. How these units will be created is entirely unclear, and the problem is not simply a lack of housing. Right now, there are more than an estimated 1.3 million empty homes. Justin Trudeau is spending more on housing schemes, which will have little effect. The main program the liberals boast about, the Tax-Free First Home Savings Account, allows first-time home buyers to save up to $40,000, which is only helpful if someone is in the position to simply save $40,000, which is $10,000 more than a minimum wage worker makes in a year. Other proposals include a “Home Buyers’ Bill of Rights” and a two-year ban on foreigners buying Canadian real estate, which plays on xenophobia to focus the blame for rising prices on foreign investors, while obscuring the fact that real estate speculation is a systemic problem. There are plenty of bourgeois Canadians to speculate on house prices. The root of the problem is much closer to home.
The Liberal government’s ineffective and inefficient solutions to try to achieve “affordable housing” do not inspire confidence for anyone in a precarious living position. This makes sense, as the Liberals are a capitalist party of the ruling class. As long as housing is allowed to be used for the profit of the ruling class, there will be no interest on their part in housing the homeless. Housing should be a basic human right. However, capitalism puts the rights of corporations to make profits before the rights or even lives of the less fortunate.
The blame for rising homeless deaths falls squarely on capitalism. Capitalism has allowed the ruling class to use housing as a vehicle for speculation, driving up house prices. Capitalism allows parasitic landlords to hike rents, forcing a growing number of people into a precarious life on the streets, which subsequently result in early deaths. The entire capitalist system, the ruling class, and their representatives in government are all responsible for every homeless death.
In “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, written in 1845, Friedrich Engels said when capitalists force workers into a condition which knowingly leads to death, it should be called what it is: murder. Or as Engels termed it, social murder.
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offense is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
This is true for both the terrors of the textile mills of the nineteenth century and it’s true today when frostbite amputations reach a ten year high in Edmonton, and people die on the sidewalk in front of shelters. This is social murder. There is no lack of resources in society to solve all of these problems. Corporations have massively increased their profits in addition to receiving handouts from the federal government while wages stagnate, layoffs occur and inflation soars.
Expropriate the parasites! Housing for all!
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 their state. There is no force in society more powerful than the working class, who, at the end of the day, make society function. We must seize empty investment properties and expropriate the parasitic landlords to house the homeless.
Seize all empty properties!
Expropriate the property development firms and run them under workers’ control!
Housing for all!