Last October, a Toronto Star article by City Hall bureau chief David Rider, reported at least 70 homeless people in Toronto had died in 2017, with numbers increasing in the city’s extreme cold December weather, where temperatures dropped to a low of -17 C, with a wind chill of -25. Last year was the first time Toronto tried to accurately record the number of homeless people who had died. The article states that although councilors were expecting a larger toll this year, due to statistics being reported by not only city shelter officials but also other social-service agencies and hospitals, they were not expecting the number to be as high as it was.

With homelessness being one of the issues increasingly at the forefront of policy discussion, The Medium sat down with Dr. Alison Smith, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Toronto Mississauga, to learn more about her current research on chronic homelessness in Canada’s major cities, and to gain insight about policies surrounding homelessness and the current capacity of the welfare state.

Chronic homelessness, as Smith described, is a smaller part of the much larger issue of homelessness. She explains that in some definitions, a person living in a shelter wouldn’t be considered homeless because technically, they have a roof over their head. The issue however, with operationalizing a label, is more complicated than simply drawing a line of separation, because often, the manifestations overlap and intersect. In Smith’s research, she focuses more on what having a home means. “A home is generally a legal space […] you have rights to. It’s a private space you have some type of control over, […] a social space that you have access to.” In that sense, there are some people who may not necessarily be identified as homeless, but who don’t have one of those aspects of a home. For example, Smith added, “They’re living in an overcrowded environment, couch surfing [or] they’re in a vulnerable and at-risk situation.” However, she continues saying that, “There are also some people who do consider a shelter environment to be a home [because] they feel safe, they feel like they have a community.”

The political science professor specifies that, in Toronto, the chronically homeless are people the media focuses on, the “very visible” people we walk past on the streets, the people who are negatively perceived as “making people uncomfortable or viewed as using up a lot of resources.” Five per cent of the homeless population who use a shelter at a given night have been homeless for a year or more, while the majority has been either in and out of homelessness, or are temporarily homeless.

The chronically homeless are a small minority within that spectrum, as Smith highlighted.

While the city has been criticized continuously for not taking enough action, Smith said that the Holy Trinity in Toronto has been conducting a homeless memorial every month for years where they publicly announce and present the names of the homeless people who have died that month. A lot of the names are Jane or John Doe but it is a service conducted in their memory to highlight the people who are more than just a number or an abstract concept in the public’s mind.

When asked about the increase in homelessness, Smith commented that the increase was seen following federal and provincial level cutbacks of social program funding in the 1980s and 1990s. The housing policy was essentially eliminated by the federal government. While British Columbia and Quebec continued to build social housing, it was happening at a much slower rate due to the lack of federal involvement. “Ontario had a 20 per cent cut across the board [and so] there were people already living in situations of poverty and after that, the benefits they received further reduced,” she explained. This also meant there was less housing being brought into the market. The policy researcher also commended David Hulchanski, a professor at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, for his “pioneering” research which has contributed towards a better shift towards social housing after the 90s.

The 1960s were considered the “boom” of housing production and while Smith acknowledges that in no way are we back to where it was then, “there is now a national housing strategy that’s been released that includes some prioritization of homelessness” as local governments, the private sector and non-profit actors stitched together “funding, expertise and networks” to put together some programs. “I think we see some sort of corrections for the decisions that were taking in the 80s and 90s,” she added.

While discussing some of the challenges that accompany shelters in cities like Toronto, Smith describes how a part of the challenge is just making sure there’s even enough space, because homeless people get turned away all the time due to shelters being full. Toronto has also taken initiative to open shelters specifically for the LGBTQ+ community as well, along with women-only and safe places for Indigenous people. Frequently, when people hear of shelters, they assume it’s always a warm and comforting place but, as Smith explained, “A reality of [these places] is that shelters can be really barebone and regimented but the people who run these places know this and are working very hard,” said Smith. “You’d be surprised by how much it costs to run a shelter. [These are] the realities of that space.”

Another crucial dilemma, Smith explained, is ensuring that people who are in the shelter system have a way out because for the shelter system to work and play its part, people need to have housing that people can move into so they can get out of the system. The shelter system is an emergency service. If there isn’t housing available for people to aspire to move into, the shelter system becomes a place that is relied on far heavily than it is equipped to be.

Upon asking her about laws and policies that are in place specifically to help the homeless during extreme weather conditions, she mentioned that in Montreal, the largest shelter runs a bus around the city to go and pick up people on the streets to make sure they can safely get to the shelter. The protocols, often, are in place by service providers themselves. Sometimes, emergency services are involved and they will go out and find people to take into shelters. “Often, cities will try to open extra spaces during extreme heat or cold and by definition, they’re more short-term solutions,” she added. “But I think what we saw in Toronto was that there’s limits to what can be done whether those [limits] are political, imagined or real.”