From the Margins: Communities Respond to COVID-19

The global pandemic has laid bare these historical and pervasive socioeconomic inequalities associated with poverty and precarious housing. The public health crisis created new challenges for community members living with poverty and for organizations involved in supporting folks living with these experiences.

It is now abundantly clear that our collective well-being depends on social policies and programs that allow people to have access to what they need to survive and thrive. Yet the experiences and perspectives of people who are enduring COVID-19 while also living with poverty and housing precarity are often left out of the dominant discussion in dealing with COVID-19 and the kinds of responses that the government is building.

Similarly, the perspectives and struggles of organizations working in poverty reduction and housing are also missing in the development of social and political responses to the pandemic. Through this webinar, we explored issues related to housing and poverty, governance of public space, disability, food security and insecurity, incarceration and institutionalization in a time of COVID-19.

We would like to thank the panelists for their excellent and invigorating comments and insights. We would also like to thank everyone who joined us and brought their insightful questions to the discussion.

Our panelists included people with lived experiences of poverty and precarious housing and homelessness, people from service providing organizations working in these arenas, as well as community-engaged researchers in the field.

Panelists members included:

  1. Cory O'Handley, Director of Projects and Housing Development, Services and Housing in the Province (SHIP)
  2. Dr. Laura Pin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph focusing on the potentiality of participatory policy-making in a neoliberal era, with a focus on budgets, housing and municipal governance.
  3. With contributions from Karen Metcalfe, Dufferin resident and advocate.

Tobin Haley, Assistant Professor, Community Studies, Cape Breton University served as moderator.

Discussion Summary

1. How has the pandemic affected how poverty and homelessness look like in Guelph-Wellington and Dufferin counties?

Karen is an individual who experienced many serious health issues and required assistance from the government during a very vulnerable time of her life. Yet, her experience of getting approved for ODSP (The Ontario Disability Support Program - one of Ontario’s social assistance programs) was one of the most difficult experiences. From Karen’s perspective, the pandemic has had a definite impact on those living in poverty. There has been a steady increase in costs of necessities and little financial assistance from the government. Access to food banks has also become increasingly difficult with social distancing guidelines in place. Karen, as a person with limited mobility, struggles with standing in line for too long. Yet, as people are lined up outside of food banks for hours, Karen is not able to use the service, having a significant impact on her overall health and well-being.

Cory believes we are dealing with a system that's already fractured. Add a pandemic on top of that and it creates many more issues. A major issue highlighted by the pandemic is that of access to housing. On a normal day there are long waitlists for social housing and affordable housing. The pandemic has only increased these waiting periods, creating excess burden on the individual and their mental health. As mental health problems have increased with the pandemic, services to help these individuals are becoming more difficult to access as they move online. Many people living in poverty cannot gain access to technology or the internet that allows them to receive the help and support they need. So, the pandemic has created lots of issues on these individuals' health in terms of housing, support, and more.

Laura stated that COVID-19 has highlighted pre-existing and on-going inequalities in access to safe and secure housing. Housing before the pandemic was already very unaffordable for people working minimum wage, for people on social assistance, for single parents. Many folks who are in these groups are disproportionately racialized people, disabled people. Most of the government's response to COVID-19 has been focused on businesses and not the individual. Even with CERB, many people do not qualify for the money because qualification is only for those who can demonstrate their work history over the past year. So for those who are not working, those who are retired or those on ODSP, they're experiencing rising costs due to the pandemic without any meaningful increases in assistance.


2. What resources, actions and partnerships have organizations used to alleviate some of the challenges around poverty and housing.

Cory discussed how his organization (SHIP) developed a waitlist management perspective. They look for individuals who are sitting on the waitlist that have no resources, that need support now, and who are just sitting in their current circumstance with no social support. Their team connects with these individuals and then connects them with other supports, such as their brief intervention team. This team has resources and staff who reach out to the individuals who are requiring and requesting support around food security, social supports, mental health, counselling or other well-being supports. Then individuals may get sent to a wellness and resource team who actually delivers food and actually supports these individuals through virtual supports.

Laura has seen many not for profit organizations change their context to meet the needs of the people and communities that they work with. Some of this included creating new opportunities for drop-in spaces for people who are homeless or unhoused in the context of a lot of semi-public spaces, malls, libraries, coffee shops. She has also seen many community mutual aid organizations emerge through this crisis. In Hamilton there are two mutual aid networks; North Mutual Aid Network and Care Mongering Network. The Care Mongering Network in Hamilton has been most participating in food delivery service for people in need weekly to people who sign up, they also provide protective equipment, provide social connections to people reaching out in need, connecting folks with legal assistance where necessary.


3. What are some of the political changes that need to happen in order to address the inequalities underlying poverty and homelessness?

Karen stated that while the government has temporarily banned evictions, there are not any plans in place to assist individuals in paying back past-due rent or getting caught up. Landlords are not charitable organizations and will demand their money in full eventually. Karen believes this will create an even greater homelessness crisis very soon. Marginalized members of society are once again not being fully considered or heard. She stated that housing and food are fundamentally basic needs, necessities and indeed rights. Karen believes more resources need to be devoted towards ensuring those most vulnerable receive them.

How do we look at a system that is fractured? Cory believes that housing is the number one social determinant of health. Cory stated that moving forward we need to look at housing stability programs, looks at the access system (waitlists to housing, support services, food banks) and most importantly look at who the homeless folks are that need help, look at prioritizing who’s most in need compared to who gets on the waitlists first.

Housing is a basic need. Laura believes that we need to move towards treating housing as a human right. We need greater public investment in programs and in housing that can prevent people from becoming unhoused and address those that are currently coping with that situation.


1. Cory, you talked about access to the internet and access to reliable technology. The machinery of access is a huge issue right now, especially with support services moving to virtual. In terms of people actually accessing it and the barriers associated with it. Can you talk more about your organization's (SHIP) initiative with this? 

Cory stated that one thing SHIP wanted to make sure of when moving online was that services would not be closed off to those in need. Cory discussed how they learnt to modify and adapt. SHIP received some funding from other organizations to help their support services remain open by providing people with Ipads, tablets and cellphones to help keep them connected and able to request help when needed.


2. Can Cory and Laura comment on what they are seeing around Bill 184 of the Landlord and Tenant Act in Ontario? The new legislation allows landlords to evict renters who fail to to fulfill repayment agreements without a hearing.

Laura stated that the two biggest concerns is that it adds debt collection to the mandate of the Landlord and Tenant board. So right now, if you have unpaid rent, the Landlord and Tenant board cannot be used against the tenant. This Bill is trying to change that to allow landlords to evict people who are in debt to them. The other big concern is that sometimes-withholding rent is the only tool people have to make their landlords fix repairs. Without having the board and hearing to help the tenants, the landlord can evict them more easily even though the landlord is refusing to fix house repairs.


3. Is housing considered a right or a privilege by Federal and Provincial governments?

Laura believes that housing is considered a privilege and not a right. Part of this problem is that there is no codified right to housing as part of the Canadian legal structure right now. Many policy responses do not treat housing as a right because they specifically make housing inaccessible to a lot of people by keeping assistant rates well below the cost of housing in most communities.

Resources provided during the webinar:

●    Hope house is offering monthly food shops delivered directly to people's homes, no proof of income necessary.
●    The Poverty Elimination Task Force is working on a work program where team members get out there and help people get necessities and help people get to work.
●    The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition has 14 different neighbourhood groups in the City of Guelph. They reach out to people facing various challenges, such as issues around housing, schooling.
●    Barb McPhee is the market manager for the North Vancouver Harvest Market. This organization gives fresh produce each week to low income families free of charge. You only have to provide a name, address and phone number.