Freezing deaths reveal systemic gaps in housing

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Lack of housing is deadly

At least two people have frozen to death in Saskatoon in the first month of 2021. A man was found dead on the city’s Lorne Avenue on January 3. Twenty days later, a 34-year-old woman was found frozen to death near Avenue Q South and 18th Street West. The deaths are a horrific reminder of the lack of reliable supports for unhoused people in Saskatchewan. Part of the problem is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many centres that would normally be available for people to warm up and shelter in to reduce the number of people they can have in the building at one time. But to blame the freezing deaths on the pandemic is to miss the larger issues at play.

Hundreds – possibly thousands – of people are unhoused at any given time in Saskatchewan, even as rental units and hotel rooms sit empty. The overwhelming majority of those people are Indigenous and all of them have experienced some form of trauma. Although houselessness is often perceived as an issue of individuals, it’s actually evidence of systemic failures and historic and ongoing colonialism. By the time someone ends up on the street, they have been failed by multiple levels of government and social supports, from the foster care system to the healthcare system to the criminal justice system, or some combination of them all. Risk factors for homelessness include transitioning out of institutionalized care, like foster care, mental health facilities, and prisons, low wages, and high housing costs, all areas that could be managed and improved upon through systemic interventions like public housing, investments in mental health care, decriminalization of drugs, and living wages.

In Regina, where Terin Kennedy, the Executive Director of End Homelessness Regina has said there may be as many as 3000 “hidden homeless,” there has been no movement to allocate funds for Everyone is Home:  A Five-Year Plan to End Chronic and Episodic Homelessness in Regina, the $63 million plan to end homelessness in the city. A large problem with implementing the plan is that the money for the program is supposed to come from the provincial and federal governments. Rather than fund people’s human right to secure, dignified housing, these levels of government prefer political posturing. Not only has the provincial government failed to adequately respond to homelessness in the province, they have turned down requests for funding for a warm-up shelter in Regina and are currently sitting on $23 million in federal funds that could be allocated towards helping vulnerable people.

To allow people to go unhoused is cruel and inhumane, but to allow them to go unhoused in the winter in Saskatchewan is criminally negligent. There is no reason for people to be freezing to death in cities where clean, safe, warm apartments and houses sit empty. As more and more people face housing instability brought about by pandemic-related economic insecurity, public housing should be a top priority of all levels of government.

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