Researchers explore homelessness in Nova Scotia during early months of COVID-19

The authors of a new report highlighting the “ongoing systemic catastrophe” of homelessness in Nova Scotia during the early months of the pandemic hope their work will inform future disaster response.

The report, Homelessness During a Pandemic, Learning Lessons for Disaster Preparedness in Nova Scotia, summarizes a collaborative study between researchers from Dalhousie University, Cape Breton University and the University of Toronto.

It was released by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) on Wednesday.

Protesters during the police eviction of a homeless encampment at the Old Memorial Library in Halifax, August 18, 2021. Photo: Tim Bousquet/Halifax Examiner

“While this study describes events, actions and lived experiences during COVID-19, the story, the underlying rationale, is that homelessness itself is stigmatizing, dehumanizing, unforgiving and disastrous and leads to such devastating consequences,” the report said.

“COVID-19, for the most part, amplified the suffering of being homeless. Overall, almost all homeless participants reported experiencing a decline in physical and mental health during the initial stages of the pandemic.

The study focused on homelessness in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM). It included interviews with 28 people experiencing homelessness and 24 people working in the housing and homelessness sector.

It captured a snapshot of the sector during the early months of the pandemic, with data collection taking place between February and mid-April 2020. The report outlines the key findings of the study and recommendations from homeless people and service providers.

“In the streets when the world has gone out”

“We had to create portraits and witnesses of this incredible event that happened, called the pandemic, and there is so little attention or understanding from the homelessness sector,” said Jeff Karabanow, professor at the Dalhousie University School of Social Work and co-author of the report.

“I think that was a big chunk, to be able to create a portrait, just a sliver of life, of what it was like to be on the streets when the world stopped.”

A bearded man, his head tilted slightly to the side, stares thoughtfully off camera as if listening to someone.

Jeff Karabanow, professor in the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University and co-author of the report. Picture: Contributed

Karabanow said one of the things that struck him while preparing the report was finding out how homeless the abandoned people were feeling during the pandemic.

“We’ve always had a pretty forgotten sector, but all the edicts that came from public health were, ‘Stay home, wash your hands, wear a mask,'” Karabanow said.

“We completely ignored a population that couldn’t go home, that couldn’t wear a mask all the time, that was out of the loop, that didn’t have the communication mechanisms, and when the world shut down, she was really, really let down.”

Karabanow said he was surprised by the number of service actors who highlighted the deep partnerships and collaboration that served as a major platform for providing support to homeless people during the pandemic.

However, there were inequalities in the availability and deployment of services in CBRM compared to HRM. The authors heard that it seemed to take longer to negotiate programs and resources in Cape Breton, and many felt that supports were not coming out of HRM.

“The lesson learned is that all levels of government need to respond more quickly during disasters and the province needs to ensure resources and responses are equally available across Nova Scotia,” the report said.

Karabanow said this was particularly noteworthy and became one of the main findings of the report.

“We know that homelessness, housing dynamics, layers of poverty, systemic discrimination, are not just rooted in human resource management,” Karabanow said.

“There are enormous levels of suffering in Nova Scotia and we have tended to overlook rurality as a major social determinant of health. And by ignoring it, we now realize that we have really missed the mark in providing adequate supports to all regions of the province.

“Lost and alone during the pandemic”

Several participants in the CBRM study told researchers that there was a need for more shelter beds in Sydney, but also in smaller towns like Sydney Mines and North Sydney.

“We should have more, like opening up more shelters, more spaces where people can go and feel safe instead of living on the streets freezing to death or having to live in a rat-infested rudeness. There was nothing,” said a traveling participant from Cape Breton.

The study found that almost all homeless participants highlighted the need for more counseling and mental health services for people in crisis, as well as programs and supports.

During those early months of the pandemic, when researchers interviewed them, they often just wanted to talk to someone.

“They could have provided a program or something to teach people and especially drug addicts how to cope, deal with loss and loneliness during the pandemic, you know what I mean,” said one participant.

“Yeah, that’s what I think would have been better for a lot of people. Advice would have been better, but nobody wanted to do it because of the pandemic, nobody wanted to talk to us. »

“Rethinking what housing really means”

Karabanow said that because homelessness was “a disaster” and the sector was “fundamentally forgotten” long before the emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic and the ongoing housing crisis have further underscored how much we have failed by not investing enough in this pre-pandemic population.

“We have the talent and the wisdom of great NGOs, caring government officials in this sector, incredible outreach people, housing people, social workers,” he said.

“We have this talent. I think it’s not just about supply, it’s about rethinking what housing actually means.

Among the successes that have emerged from the pandemic, Karabanow points to the initiatives that have surfaced and the collaboration between players in the sector. He described the many frontline service providers as unsung heroes, noting that they had no track record and were allowed to think outside the box.

“The money, the federal funding, could roll in pretty quickly because we had to figure out how to ward off this virus in marginal populations,” he said.

Some of these off-the-beaten-track initiatives included the emergence of a harm reduction model, a public health hotline, and toilet blocks.

“All people’s ideas of how you can create compassionate, caring, and extremely urgent supports,” he said. “And even though it’s a band-aid, you know, they were so important to what people were going through during the pandemic.”

When the next disaster strikes

To make the information more accessible, the researchers also worked with local host Shannon Long to create a short animated video that captures some of the study’s important findings. This video can be found here.

The report concluded with the voices of homeless people sharing the supports and services they believe would be most beneficial. They included:

  • universal basic income
  • increased addictions services and harm reduction programs
  • mental health supports
  • places where people experiencing homelessness can have coffee and chat
  • increased access to housing
  • help finding a job
  • increased communication around the evolution of the pandemic, public health restrictions and availability of services

“What I hope is that we will be careful as civil society and mainly as members of government in the next disaster. That we don’t expect everyone to have the same opportunities and resources to follow the protocols put in place,” Karabanow said.

“I think we have to be careful with our language, we have to be careful with policies and procedures. We must remember that civil society is made up of all the great diversity of people.


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