Women, girls, and gender diverse people are disproportionately impacted by a loss of income during COVID-19, putting women-led households at great risk of losing their housing.
A report by the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network (WNHHN) and research from the Community University Policy Alliance on Women’s Complex Homelessness at McMaster University reveals multiple pressures on women, girls, and gender diverse people as they struggle to find or retain safe shelter during the pandemic.
Most Canadian provinces have put policies in place that support moratoriums on evictions during COVID-19. Once those moratoriums are lifted, there will be an increase of women-led households entering into homelessness.
Housing support services, including outreach and Housing First providers, have adjusted the ways in which they are providing support to clients during the pandemic. As a result, many women and gender diverse people who were previously homeless have been left without the support they require to maintain their tenancy.
Service providers are worried that these households will be facing an unprecedented loss of housing in the coming months.
COVID-19 is making a bad situation worse
Before COVID-19, there was already a profound lack of safe, affordable, adequate and appropriate housing, supportive housing programs, and emergency shelter programs for women, girls, and gender diverse people in Canada—especially in jurisdictions with high rates of gender-based violence.
The lack of housing and emergency shelter is intensifying as a result of COVID-19.
To adhere to social distancing guidelines, many emergency shelters across Canada have been forced to operate at a lower capacity. Interviews with front-line workers in Hamilton found that while emergency ad-hoc interventions have been put in place, there remains a profound lack of shelter space. As a result, Hamilton and other cities across Canada have seen an increase in encampments.
On April 30th, A National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada was released by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, calling attention to the importance of a human rights approach to encampments during a pandemic. Yet there is still no unified policy response across Canada to put a moratorium on dismantling encampments.
Multiple and compounding public systems failures
During the COVID-19 pandemic, women, girls, and gender diverse people who have complex health needs require interventions grounded in policies that intentionally respond to the intersections between housing and health. The multiple and compounding systemic failures that perpetuate homelessness are exacerbated by the pandemic.
Front-line workers report that while emergency interventions, such as access to hotel rooms, have been put in place, these ad-hoc interventions fall considerably short in terms of supporting women with complex mental health, addiction issues, or experiences of violence.
In particular, there is a shared concern for older women, pregnant women, and women with underlying complex health conditions living on the streets.
The opioid epidemic and COVID-19 are also intersecting in complex ways, compounding the effects of the pandemic. Research from across the country shows a drastic spike in opioid-related overdoses, with British Columbia reporting the highest number of recorded overdoses in the province’s history this past June. Front-line workers in Hamilton are expressing concerns as well, noting limits on nasal naloxone and CPR administration.
A well-coordinated pandemic response requires implementing a social determinants of health lens to work collaboratively across public systems in ways that prioritize those who are at most risk to the virus, particularly women with complex mental health and addiction issues.
Violence against women, girls, and gender diverse people
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, stay-at-home orders, exacerbate the violence, exploitation, and isolation that women, girls, and gender diverse people experience.
Across the country, there has been an increase in demand for services and shelter space aimed at people experiencing violence against women. In the Greater Toronto Area, for example, referrals to victims services have increased three-fold, with an 18% increase in domestic violence-related calls to police, particularly by young women.
Public health orders to stay home have contributed to intimate partner violence which is more violent, more frequent, and more dangerous. The United Nations Population Fund suggests that three months of quarantine will result in a 20% increase in intimate partner violence around the world.
In Hamilton, front-line workers are raising concerns about escalating gender-based violence and the potential increase of women, girls, and gender diverse people who will enter into homelessness as a way to flee the violence they are experiencing at home.
For women already experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, violence in encampments is a significant challenge. Those engaged in street-based sex work are also at heightened risk for violence and exploitation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges that are effecting housing, health, and social welfare policy across Canada. These challenges also present a unique opportunity to re-envision a more just social welfare state; one in which all women, girls, and gender diverse-people have access to safe, adequate, and sustainable housing.
Note: These observations are drawn from the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network’s report, The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada. Learn more here.