Jeff Karabanow, professor and associate director at Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work says the pandemic has only intensified the ongoing struggles of those living without safe housing options amid public health restrictions like lockdowns, which were meant to keep everyone safe. He says the response to the health crisis disproportionately affected those most vulnerable in the community.
“One of our findings from the study was that the pandemic was a disaster but homelessness is also a disaster and it was a disaster way before the pandemic,” said Karabanow.
The study is a snapshot of the homelessness situation in Halifax and in Sydney, N.S. during the first and second waves of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw a handful of Dalhousie health researchers work with homeless participants who shared their experiences from the moment the state of emergency was declared.
The study was conducted between February and April 2020 and focussed on the two largest municipalities in Nova Scotia – the Halifax Regional Municipality and Cape Breton Regional Municipality – where researchers followed and interviewed 28 individuals experiencing homelessness as well 24 service stakeholders.
Karabanow said it was important to act quickly and examine how those who were unhoused and those working in the service sector navigated their way through the challenges of the public health emergency and the ongoing housing crisis.
“Those participants who were experiencing homelessness that we were working with, all said they felt abandoned, they felt like they were completely alone,” said Karabanow. “Just imagine how hard it is to find resources when the city was open, but now you are starting to see the city shut down overnight and there is just nothing for them.”
While Nova Scotians were told to “Stay the blazes home,” the homeless populations and those most marginalized were pushed further to the fringes said Karabanow, as the homeless population already faces disproportionate barriers which were further exacerbated because of the pandemic and subsequent public health lockdowns.
“We’re seeing more people that are living rough and outdoors and we’re seeing shelters full, and they are usually full but now they have longer waitlists,” said Karabanow, who has worked in shelters in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario.
Karabanow says the study shows those working in the social services sector went above and beyond their calling, utilizing the resources they had available but also showing great ability to collaborate with other stakeholders and use “out of the box thinking” to come up with quick solutions.
Shelters in Nova Scotia dodged the worst of COVID-19 says Karababow because the shelter service providers and the government acted quickly and reduced the number of people in shelters and utilized hotel rooms for safe and dignified emergency housing options.
People are beginning to take notice of the housing crisis and the homelessness situation says Karabanow, noting the public has been rallying around the cause and advocating for solutions, which is leading to positive changes.
“We see the municipality, we see the province and we see the (federal government) all speaking about the housing crisis and how we inject some form of resources, hope and imagination, to create some form of supportive mechanism.”
The pandemic continues as the fourth wave sweeps across the Atlantic provinces but already there are lessons to be learned from the study in order to deal with the homelessness crisis, like taking steps to immediately increase the safe and affordable housing stock says Karabanow. But that’s just one first step.
“The idea of the study was to also provide a roadmap,” said Karabanow. “Because we’re going to have more and more environmental disasters and so we need to have a way that we can get together very quickly to work on solutions.”