In a Toronto Sun op-ed, OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is urgently calling on municipal and provincial governments to find homes for everybody suffering homelessness.
“Study after study has shown that it’s much less expensive to provide affordable housing for a person than it is to house them in a shelter. And during this pandemic, the costs of overcrowded shelters are even higher: More people infected with COVID-19,” writes Thomas.
“So if we want to keep ourselves safe, we need to make sure everybody has the safety of a home.”
Here’s the full op-ed:
We’re all safer when everybody has the safety of a home
By Warren (Smokey) Thomas
They say home is safety, and that’s never been more true than right now.
Walls, doors and a roof over your head keep you sheltered from all kinds of threats and danger, from storms to stress to violent crime.
And these days, shelter is even more crucial. To stay safe from COVID-19, we’re all staying home as much as we can. Behind the walls, doors and windows that we can call our own, we are both keeping ourselves healthy and keeping the pandemic under control.
But what if you don’t have a home to call your own? With no walls or windows to stop the spread of the virus, how can you stay safe and keep those around you safe, too?
The answer — which OPSEU’s front-line shelter and community services workers have been trying to raise alarm bells about for months — is that you can’t, at least not easily.
From the start, the members of my union called for more shelter space because they knew from first-hand experience that the virus would run rampant through the system we’ve built to help those struggling with homelessness. They knew that beds needed to be two metres apart or more. They knew that for many, especially those suffering mental illness, social distancing wouldn’t be observed.
Thanks to the hard work and advocacy of OPSEU members, shelter space was expanded. More space was found and new temporary shelters were opened.
But not enough space. Not enough new shelters. The month of June began with nearly 500 COVID-positive people in Toronto’s two dozen shelters. Who could blame those in shelter from fleeing those hotspots in favour of a tent of their own?
Encampments started springing up across Toronto and by the end of the month, there were fewer than 100 people suffering homelessness who were also COVID-positive — the lowest that number had been since April.
Obviously, the encampments are far from perfect and offer nothing more than very temporary relief.
But the basic lesson seems clear as day: Like the rest of us, people suffering homelessness can only stop contracting and transmitting the virus when they have a place of their own, even if it’s just a tent.
Sadly, elected leaders in our biggest city don’t seem to have learned that lesson. While leaders in places like Kingston are doing what they can to make its encampments safer by moving it closer to running water and washrooms, Toronto’s leaders seem to simply focus on shutting the tent encampments down.
It’s as childish a response as I can imagine — no better than simply closing your eyes in hopes that the problem will go away if you can’t see it.
Now, I know there are people who believe that those suffering homelessness have only themselves to blame. I couldn’t disagree more, but there’s no sense in getting bogged down in that argument right now.
Let’s focus instead on something I’m sure we can all agree on: Making our communities as safe and prosperous as possible. Shelters, particularly overcrowded shelters, accomplish neither.
Study after study has shown that it’s much less expensive to provide affordable housing for a person than it is to house them in a shelter. And during this pandemic, the costs of overcrowded shelters is even higher: More people infected with COVID-19.
So if we want to keep ourselves safe, we need to make sure everybody has the safety of a home.
— Warren (Smokey) Thomas is president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)