Over the past three and a half months, we have seen that the social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19. In many cases, those challenges have gotten much worse, and have required innovation to make sure the most vulnerable don’t fall through the cracks.
People whose housing situations were precarious before COVID-19 are now at greater risk of facing poor outcomes. Over the weeks our table has discussed supporting our communities to access basic needs. The most basic of needs—which also serves as the first line of defence from COVID-19—is safe and reliable housing.
For months now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others to support at-risk groups through the effects of COVID-19 on our communities.
On Friday, at our weekly COVID-19 Community Response table, attendees heard from several community sector leaders: Wendy Muckle of Ottawa Inner City Health, Katie Burkholder Harris of Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, and George Brown of Integral North. They shared insights on how we can address the ongoing pandemic of homelessness that has only been exacerbated with the onset of COVID-19.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
The table also included supportive attendees from municipal, provincial and federal governments, including Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, and Minister of Provincial Parliament for Bay of Quinte, Marie-France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans, Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West—Nepean, and Laura Dudas, Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward 2 and Deputy Mayor. These officials are avid listeners at the table, and will play a key role in bringing our sector’s challenges, successes and concerns to higher levels for policy consideration and change.
Homelessness in the age of COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit, the community sector and Ottawa Public Health knew they must react quickly to adequately prepare and mitigate risk.
By putting in place a consistent infection control protocol across the shelters—which increased the intensity of the protocol as the local risk intensified—agencies like Ottawa Inner City Health were able to recognize early on that they had to operate as a system of sheltering and supportive housing as one.
Working together, the collaborative efforts of shelters, supportive housing programs, paramedics and first responders, medical professionals, and public health officials helped create a cohesive response.
That said, before COVID-19 entered our communities, our communities struggled with homelessness.
From an overcrowded shelter system that was struggling even before the pandemic, to a lack of access to affordable housing, there was, and continues to be, a housing crisis.
COVID-19 disproportionately affects people experiencing homelessness
While the common COVID-19 sentiment is “we are all in this together” – the effects of the pandemic are not universal.
In Ottawa alone, in our recent meeting, Katie Burkholder Harris, Executive Director of Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa highlighted that about 26,000 households are considered to be in core housing need, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association.
Core housing need is a two-stage indicator that helps to identify who needs housing assistance by asking if:
- The household lives in acceptable housing; and,
- The before-tax income is sufficient to access acceptable local housing.
This indicator looks beyond a resident’s current situation and evaluates their potential to improve their situation. It determines if residents have the potential to solve the situation on their own.
This data indicates that 26,000 Ottawa residents would not be able to pay the rent if they lost their jobs—a reality we are currently living through with the onset of COVID-19.
The path to recovery
At our most recent meeting, the sector discussed the three opportunities to minimize the negative effects that COVID will have on individuals and families living in housing precarity or homelessness.
- Hotels to Homes
There is an opportunity to convert buildings or hotels to homes for low-income or people experiencing homelessness – an activity already being pursued before COVID-19 entered our communities.
- Evictions Prevention and Evictions Jubilee
Many in the sector are concerned about Bill-184, currently in consideration by the provincial government – and the power it could give landlords to evict people immediately if they miss payment. The concern is that we could see a surge in family homelessness which would overwhelm our ability to respond as a community. With the current onset of COVID-19, many low-income or other vulnerable people would benefit from enhanced support and protection during this difficult time.
- Housing Blitz
Partnering with the City of Ottawa, the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa is engaging in a media blitz to reach the community to call for landlords, housing inventory options, or private units in the market to open up.
A fundamental transformation of the system
COVID-19 has intensified existing challenges in our communities – now is the time to create change for those struggling with homelessness not only during this pandemic, but in the long-term.
“The primary thing that we can do right now to be able to extend that equity lens going forward is to actively, aggressively, assertively prevent evictions and rapidly house as many homeless people as we can before the second wave arrives.” — Wendy Muckle, Executive Director of Ottawa Inner City Health
George Brown of Integral North offered two additional ways that companies and organizations can support the housing crisis—social procurements and impact investments.
- Social procurement
Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) are a way community groups can support social procurement.While there are a great deal of social enterprises in our communities thanks to the work of the Center for Social Enterprise Development – more can take advantage of what these enterprises offer. CBAs help create the demand for the employment and representation of people from marginalized or otherwise vulnerable populations.
- Impact investments
By supporting and investing in community Land Trusts—we can collectively work towards building more affordable housing or protecting the affordable housing that already exists. By supporting the creation of acquisition funds and engaging with investors looking to make impact investments that yield social impacts as well as profits, we can secure equitable—and profitable—futures for our communities.
The work continues
Our work at the COVID-19 Community Response Table aims to construct a profile of how the pandemic is affecting the most vulnerable people in our communities, supported by real-time data and stories of lived experiences. By pinpointing areas that demand our attention, we can recommend programs, partnerships, and policy changes to guarantee a stronger future for everyone.
While the table takes a short hiatus over the coming weeks, this does not mean that the work stops. For those of us in the social sector, the work never stops. We continue to connect and collaborate, across the region, to tackle the tough problems. As our table reconvenes in late August, we will report back to the community on our work, and on our impact.
Today, nearly 120 days after COVID-19 initially arrived in our region – we continue to face many challenges. But what we know for certain is that there is no absence of bold, creative solutions at our fingertips that can lift up the most vulnerable and create more equitable communities.
Our mission is to continue to work together through a lens of social justice, to build a better future for everyone.
In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.