I was recently invited by The Economics Society of Northern Alberta to speak at their 2022 Outlook Conference about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on homelessness. My slide deck is located here.

Here are 10 things to know.

1. There have been positive developments with respect to homelessness planning during COVID. Officials have increased physical distancing by reconfiguring existing spaces, acquiring new spaces, and paying for hotel rooms. Officials have continued to move persons experiencing homelessness into permanent housing (but are limited by a lack of affordable housing).

2. There are lingering challenges in the sector. They include a rise in visible outdoor sleeping (especially during warmer weather); shared bathrooms and other common areas; the increased costs of cleaning associated with these shared spaces; a lack of cooperation from correctional facilities (e.g., when discharging inmates directly into homelessness); and new homelessness caused by the economic downturn.

3. The Government of Canada has made substantial new homelessness investments during the pandemic. They announced $157.5 million in one-time funding for Reaching Home in March 2020 (Reaching Home is the federal government’s main funding vehicle for homelessness). And in September 2020, they announced an additional $236.7 million for Reaching Home, along with $1 billion for modular housing, the acquisition of land, and the conversion of existing buildings into affordable housing (through the newly-created Rapid Housing Initiative).

4. Important partnerships have emerged between homelessness officials and health officials. For example, a larger share of Toronto’s emergency facilities are seeing primary health care provided on site (by this I mean service provision by family physicians and nurses). Some Toronto shelters are also seeing pharmacists keep regular hours on site. And some Calgary shelters have seen a substantial increase in on-site licensed practical nurses and paramedics.

5. There have been positive examples of Indigenous-led partnerships during the pandemic. An Indigenous-led vaccine clinic in Calgary, which includes the onsite presence of Elders, is worthy of attention. And Indigenous-led testing and vaccine clinics in Winnipeg has been well-received.

6. There have been important harm reduction innovations during the pandemic. “Harm reduction” in this context refers to deliberate strategies to reduce harms associated with drug and alcohol use, without necessarily requiring total abstinence. In Ottawa, supervised consumption services and a safe supply of cannabis are both offered at an isolation site designated for persons experiencing homelessness. And territorial officials in Yellowknife have distributed alcohol at the city’s isolation centre for persons experiencing homelessness.

7. Several cities have expanded eviction prevention programs. This has involved short-term financial assistance to pay a variety of costs allowing households at risk of homelessness to either remain housed or quickly access housing. Such costs can typically include rental arrears, utility arrears, first month’s rent, the securing of damage deposits and moving costs. While the initiatives themselves are not new, the pandemic has given officials reason to expand their use.

8. The Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) has been helpful to homelessness planning, with some caveats. This federal initiative (alluded to above) provides funding for modular housing, the acquisition of land, the conversion of existing buildings into affordable housing, and the reclamation of closed or derelict properties. Many projects are still awaiting word on whether their respective provincial government will provide operating dollars, which will, in turn, determine what kinds of social work (i.e., ‘wraparound’) support can be provided, and which specific households can be accommodated. The RHI is viewed as being the best federal housing initiative right now to target chronic (i.e., long term) homelessness. During the recent election campaign, the Liberals promised to double funding for the initiative.

9. The economic downturn may create new homelessness. Admittedly, statistical analysis done over the years does not present a clear relationship between unemployment and homelessness; however, most of that research has been done in the United States.

10. To prevent new homelessness, senior orders of government need to both track a variety of indicators and fund prevention initiatives. I’ve previously written here about what such tracking should look like. Prevention initiatives could include an enhancement to the Canada Housing Benefit (financial assistance for low-income households); a soft approach to recovering Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) overpayments; a new federal funding stream for homelessness prevention; higher social assistance benefit levels; and the reinstatement of social assistance eligibility for recipients who became ineligible due to the CERB.

In sum. Many homelessness officials have done good work during the pandemic, supported by new funding injections. However, a visible rise in outdoor sleeping in many cities is cause for concern. Significant measures are necessary to prevent an increase in homelessness stemming from the economic crisis.

I wish to thank Sylvia Regnier, Vincent St-Martin and Alex Tétreault for their assistance with this blog post.

NOTE: La version française de ce billet se trouve ici.