Homelessness, Campsites, Fires and Covid

Those living rough in Canadian cities, particularly those who erect campsites or other temporary dwellings, have long been a point of discussion, debate, and contention in media and in politics. The vision to prevent and end homelessness involves everyone finding a home, which essentially means a vision of zero people sleeping rough.

In pre-COVID-19 times this always involved complicated relationships with municipal by-law enforcement, policing, and social services. All communities in Canada have some form of anti-camping by-law, and these are enforced variably by by-law and police. Social services themselves struggle with differential approaches, some supporting this by-law enforcement as a means of driving people into services or towards housing, others taking a hands-off approach, others actively supporting the building of optimal encampment spaces. The London Homeless Coalition drafted a position statement advocating for a compassionate response to those living rough as a means to shift away from a by-law driven approach, for example. Within Housing First, many reports have looked at assertive engagement to connect with those who are living rough and support them into permanent housing options.

And then came COVID-19. We knew that for a variety of factors, including pre-existing conditions, lack of opportunities to physically distance, lack of access to PPE, and other reasons that people experiencing homelessness would be a high risk population in this pandemic. Research has shown this vulnerability to be true, with those experiencing homelessness being 5x more likely to die with COVID-19. Right off the bat we knew it would be necessary to decrease emergency shelter occupancies to create real opportunities for physical distancing. This led to initiatives across Canada to engage hotels/motels as well as public spaces as temporary housing for those who would otherwise be in shelter.

So what does COVID-19 mean for those in campsites?

The CDC was the first out the gate with recommendations on what to do about encampments and the recommendation was clear:

“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

Moving people or removing campsites creates clear COVID-19 transmission risks: It either drives people to share tents, pushes people into shelters we are trying to de-intensify, pushes people to couch surfing those breaking physical “bubbles”, or put people at risk of exposure sleeping outside with no cover. The point is clear:

All debate aside about encampments in public spaces, during the COVID-19 pandemic people should be supported to remain in encampments and to do so as safely distanced as possible. This means delivering PPE, food, and other necessarily supplies and checking in with people through outreach. This is without even considering whether or not moving someone out of an encampment is a violation of the human right to shelter.

So this is pretty clear, but then along came the Canadian winter and with it:

Late January and most of February were characterized by an intense and persistent cold snap across the country. There was little relief as night after night dipped from -15 or lower in Southwestern Ontario to -30 or lower in Central Canada. With this deadly cold, those in encampments scrambled to find heating options to survive. However, as we know, with informal shelters and heat sources comes the risk of fire, and this has been deadly.

This fires have been used as justification for some communities to return to (or continue) a by-law focused approach to try to drive people out of encampments. Or, it has at least put pressure on municipal politicians to “do something”. Doing something has not appeared, from what I’ve seen, to mean opening more hotel/motel spaces. I fear that in responding to the fires we are forgetting the important instructions related to the unique situation of being in a pandemic.

So to conclude, I remind us all of the guidelines from the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health on ‘Public Health Guidance for Encampments During COVID-19‘. The guidelines are clear:

  1. Allow people to remain where they are.
  2. Provide them what they need to do so safely.
  3. Minimize risk of deaths due to exposure.

Now is not the time to drive people out of encampments. Even if you or your organization are philosophically opposed to encampments in normal times, now is a time you should consider providing people with safer heating options. Yes, we can still be fully driven by the goal of permanent housing solutions, but lets keep people alive long enough to get there.

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