Earlier this year, a large rally was held in downtown Ottawa calling for a state of emergency. Spearheaded by urban municipal Councillor Catherine McKenney, the emergency was called in response to mounting concerns about an increase in folks at risk of homelessness. With housing costs rising, and a growing portion of the population paying exorbitant amounts of their income on rent, many of Ottawa’s residents were on the brink of losing their housing.

The rally was successful and the motion declaring a housing and homelessness emergency was passed. The motion emphasized rapid action to address the existing stop gaps. Hopeful energy. Practical application. Momentum!

But that was before the pandemic hit, and the world changed overnight.

Sitting down to chat with the  activist councilor McKenney, I realized that we were now  evaluating a very different situation. One with even more dire consequences.

“Right now, we are in extraordinary times, so we do what we can. We continue to adapt. What I realize now in my role, is that I share an office with my wife since we have been working from home. My dining room table is now a municipal councilor’s office, but she runs a supportive housing organization from that same table. And while I have always known this personally, it has never been more evident recently, who of the two of us does the most important work” explained McKenney.

McKenney illustrates how small she feels her role  is in times of panic —how an activist politician is minuscule in comparison to those on the front lines of the public health crisis. “I am here to ensure that I keep information flowing to the people of Ottawa…I am trying to make the best decisions that are possible for a ward that is close to …45,000 people. In the ward that I represent, we have many people who are experiencing homelessness, and many people who are existing in very poor living conditions. People living in rooming houses. And it’s tough. There is no real tangible way to practice physical distancing."

Is Basic Income the answer?

Catherine  speaks candidly about how COVID-19 is causing governments to re-evaluate current support systems.

“Now we have to look more deeply at a number of crucial aspects of our society, and shifting the balance. The gig economy and working from home for example. Basic income!”

She adds, “We were able to roll out a basic income program in this country inside of a week!” Referring to the recently announced federal relief package.

“And we are going to learn that it works! It’s been through other critical times in our history where we see employment insurance kick in after international conflicts, where we see Medicare kick in to help those in need. I am hopeful that we see basic income become the program that we remember after  COVID-19. This way, we can all take care of each other.”

When asked about the federal and provincial relief packages and how they are affecting the vulnerable residents in her ward, Councillor McKenney spoke with optimism.

“When we have people who are at risk of losing their housing because they have lost their jobs, we have people living in rent geared to income housing for example, or they were just living in low income neighbourhoods or housing arrangements, it’s scary. We have something like 50,000 households in the city of Ottawa alone, who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. And 20 percent of those same people are spending 50 percent to 70 percent on rent. Any loss of income creates a situation where we could have an explosion of homelessness. Now granted, right now in Ontario you can’t evict anyone, but some point when this is over, that rent will have to get caught up on.”

Basic income (also known as guaranteed annual income) became a prominent theme of our discussion. And McKenney spoke passionately about how that stimulus could create a positive impact.

“The fact that there will be that basic income input into people’s pockets at this critical time…into their homes so that they can take care of their rent…to have that income directly in the households of those in need, is quite significant. And frankly, I don’t know why we would roll that back. I believe that we will be able to demonstrate that it works.”

When attempting to really illustrate the difference a program like that could make, Councillor McKenney wastes no time using herself as the example.

“People like me are going to come out of this fine…We have got salaries that we can depend on. We stay at home. We come out of this, and we [will] still have our salaries. We go out. We spend money. But if you have got people who were otherwise living in poverty, who now have that income that’s guaranteed to them, that money is going to go directly into the economy. Those people aren’t buying stocks on the stock market. They are going directly into our local economy and spending that money on food and local goods. They support small businesses. And I believe that post-crisis, small businesses will also be the proponents of basic income. And I believe this will be the first time that’s probably ever happened.”

Housing and Homelessness Emergency Declaration

Switching gears back to the ‘emergency declaration,’ and how passing the legislation has been stalled by the constantly evolving COVID-19 situation, Catherine admitted its shortcomings.

“It’s a little more difficult to enact some of the steps we envisioned with the emergency declaration when it first passed based on the changing environment of the pandemic.”

Catherine explained modestly that “the declaration of emergency really was meant to kick-start a conversation across the city.” Speaking hopefully, she explained that “it really, I think, needed to develop as a conversation across the country, in order to really matter. And hopefully those conversations would inspire things like basic income on a national level. Especially with dollars being made available through the National Housing Strategy, which is really what we need.”

It is obvious that the sudden shift in priorities created significant frustrations for the Ottawa Councillor, but she was quick to continue to highlight the opportunities that could come from the pandemic as well.

“We were preparing to release our ten-year housing and homelessness plan, and decipher what was needed from us, from the provincial government, and from the federal government too. We intended to get a real sense of what we needed to do to go from point A to point B. This is what our goals are. Here is what we want to accomplish. This is our reality; what’s next, and how long is it going to take? And then the pandemic hits! And now, we haven’t even announced or released our ten-year housing and homelessness plan.”

“But  there  are  opportunities that  are presenting themselves now to demonstrate to people there is hope and a path forward” Catherine continued.

“I hear from people who are concerned for those that are precariously housed a lot more than before. People are worried for those in shelters, and they want to help now more than ever. And we have taken some big steps. We have taken over a hotel to help with homelessness a bit more. We have opened up a community centre. And the notion of no longer allowing empty buildings and businesses to remain vacant in this city is taking over the discussion a lot more since the pandemic hit. And that was one of the things that I asked for in my motion back in January. Initially I just wanted to seriously look at taking over empty buildings and consider how we can convert them for housing. Now it is happening! People are saying ‘look we have these empty buildings and we have been complaining for years that we need housing and have nowhere to put people.’ And now there is.”

This is not a new concept by any stretch, and we are seeing this same concept play out in communities all over the world. Here in Canada, this discussion took shape in Calgary where the plan was initially to take that course of action. However, as is often the case when balancing political will against ideology and commerce, that plan was scrapped.

“The city is actually doing that,” explained McKenney. “And I am sure that there are other cities across the country that are doing the exact same thing. So out of all of this, there are opportunities and I hope that when we come out of this pandemic, that the conversation will have changed enough that these opportunities to help will continue.”

Wrapping up our conversation with a more hopeful tone than the one which we began, Catherine was quick to remind me that the battle is not over. Not nearly.

“We have the power of the people. And people in the city of Ottawa want changes. Especially considering just how much emphasis we are putting on taking care of each other. And the education of how this affects us all. We can all be in trouble overnight.”

Catherine concluded her thoughts with one central reminder that it is not the politician who makes the most impact in times of crises.

“A shout to all of the front-line workers who are working through this pandemic. To all who are supporting those who are homeless or precariously housed. We all owe you a debt of gratitude. They really are the folks that we always rely on in times like these, but seldom do they ever really get the credit they deserve.”