Homelessness is a Human Right Issue 

By Leah Peer

Homelessness was a crisis before the pandemic, and it will continue to be so if neglected. On any given night, it is estimated that 35,000 Canadians sleep on the streets or in shelters, and at least 235,000 Canadians are homeless during any given year. The challenges faced by those without homes are more extreme due to the quarantine and closures in place, as many shelters have refused to accept more people. As a result, the homeless have no access to toilets, or toilet paper, forcing unsafe hygiene practices and open defecation. Many are filled with dread as they are forced to sleep on the ground in public, fearing that they are Canada’s forgotten people. Ensuring access to adequate and safe housing is, now more than ever, a fundamental human right. Solving the homelessness problem is not just about guaranteeing housing, but making it so that individual rights to education, liberty, privacy, and social security are upheld. As responsible medical students and citizens, it is time to end deaths due to homelessness and advocate that those suffering from the homeless plight be viewed as more than objects of charity.

It is no surprise that the most vulnerable people on the streets are also the highest risk population of contracting COVID-19. They are physically incapable of adhering to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) public health guidelines for the prevention of virus transmission. Shelters that opened to the needy are facing difficulties due to inadequate space that conflicts with social distancing measures. These tight enclosures have always posed a heightened risk of transmitting communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, influenza, and now COVID-19. Given this reality, the under-housed face a dilemma: do they fill their stomachs and risk infection, or do they deprive themselves of food and risk death due to hunger? The answer is obvious; finding food is the first priority, even if it also means risking their health in other ways. 

When survival is the goal, the health and wellbeing of individuals are neglected. Striving to achieve life’s necessities for survival becomes the objective and everything else – secondary. As such, those without homes suffer from hypertension, cancer, and heart disease on top of already weakened immune systems. They have poor medication adherence and higher risks of mortality, as they are unable to bathe and wash their clothes regularly. While international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) exist and seek to implement standards of rights for the homeless, they are unable to hold countries accountable in caring for their people. The economic conditions of COVID-19 have caused many to lose their jobs, and some are finding themselves on the streets. Living paycheque to paycheque is challenging, and unhealthy financial habits of Canadians leave them unprepared to deal with a sudden pandemic. It is essential that Canadians, and especially Canadian youth, implement emergency funds to better prepare themselves for rainy days. Since the onset of COVID-19, eviction rates have surged despite the help available.

 The homeless are significantly made up of indigenous people, women, students, children, and refugees. Indigenous people specifically face greater social and economic disadvantages due to lower levels of education, high unemployment and drop-out rates, and persistent mental health problems as well as substance use issues. Women without homes fear congregating in areas, as they may be victims of violence and/or rape. In Canada however, women make up half of the homeless population. They face marginalization, exploitation, are more likely to head single-parent households, and bear the burden of childcare. They too have to decide between paying for rent or paying for food, and no human being should have to decide between the two. The directive to “stay home” is far from easy as many are trapped with abusive or violent partners. The solution to these people’s problems stemming from homelessness may seem simple: provide them with a home. However, it is easier said than done, considering the fact that the pandemic has stalled policies securing housing for women and children. Temporarily, the most popular solution has been to house people in motels and hotels, but due to logistical reasons, owners have refused to lend their places to the government. The possibility of housing those who have tested positive for the virus or are battling opioid addictions behind closed doors may pose additional threats to personal property and additional unwanted expenses. Furthermore, locations housing the homeless may soon become segregation centres or part of encampment practices due to COVID-19. Human rights advocates are concerned about the inevitable discrimination that will occur, and therefore suggest setting up stations to wash hands and deploying portable toilets to existing areas with high rates of homelessness. Working to build another centre for those who are both homeless and positive for COVID-19 is another proposed idea.

When solutions are proposed by those in power about living life on the other side, in poverty, their suggestions may lack clarity. This is when it becomes essential that a lens catered to meet the people’s needs is employed for efficient and effective policies and as such, speaking to the homeless is the best strategy to combat foreseeable problems. 

Poverty and the inability to afford housing are central to homelessness, while financial difficulties accompanied with other personal problems of domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse make the situation worse. Every person has the right to enjoy the highest standard of health, and homelessness impinges on the rights to safety and access to services, further exacerbating the already existing problems of poor nutrition and chronic diseases that are only made worse in the midst of a global health crisis. Homelessness complicates healthcare delivery and without shelter, the homeless are more vulnerable to crime and attacks. Changing the societal perception and treatment of homeless people is the way forward. As future physicians, uniting in the quest to fight for the protection and promotion of the most vulnerable is necessary so that we may better serve in hospitals and beyond.

Interested in donating, volunteering, and helping shelters support those most affected get off the streets? Take a look at these local organizations:

–       The Period Purse

–       Homes for Heroes Foundation

–       Hands Up Canada

–       Just Socks Foundation

–       Engage and Change

–       Quest Food Exchange

–       Helping Homeless Pets

–       The Shoebox Project