The COVID-19 pandemic has made homelessness more visible in Toronto and made residents more aware of how close they are to becoming homeless themselves, says a street outreach counsellor who works to find housing for people in the city.
Andrea Jackson, 50, a Streets to Homes worker for the city of Toronto, says people are aware that homelessness has led to encampments in city parks and that some people are on the street because they do not want to be in city shelters during the pandemic.
Jackson said both the visibility of homelessness and realization that the problem of homelessness is widespread have increased. As well, people realize that these are hard times, she said. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has made a difference, she added.
"A lot of people have become acutely aware of how precarious their situations are," Jackson said.
"Coupled with the amount of news coverage of the encampments and various new projects, people are starting to equate that: 'Hey, that really could be me if I didn't have my parents to go home to, or I didn't have the CERB cheques,' that perhaps they could have ended up in the shelter."
Jackson spoke to CBC Toronto as part of the Emergency Shelter and Homelessness Service Worker Appreciation Week. The week, which began on Monday, ended on Sunday. She works at the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre downtown.
"The people we work with, they have limited access to a lot of things," she said. "All of us are very used to having a cell phone, maybe a laptop, we have internet access, we have a home. And the people that I work with, they don't. They also, quite often, get discounted," she said.
"When they have a concern or something has happened to them, the attitude can kind of be: 'Oh, that's so and so who has mental health or who has addiction issues' and not understanding that everybody is two pay cheques away from being homeless, the majority of the population," she continued.
"Getting them the resources and getting them treated with respect is super important. It's super important to make sure that they understand that they deserve housing, they deserve to be treated with respect, they deserve to be heard when they have concerns as citizens."
As a street outreach worker, she helps clients get "housing ready." That means interviewing them, helping them get their identification and housing applications in order and making sure their physical and mental health needs have been addressed to ensure they are stable once they are housed.
As well, she connects clients to existing services, including doctors, sometimes reconnects them with family members, and talks to clients about what they need and want in terms of housing.
In a given day, she might talk to anywhere from three to 15 unhoused people. During extreme cold weather alerts, the numbers increase, she said.
Jackson said she would like Toronto residents to remember that homelessness is a complex problem and that often a series of events lead a person to become unhoused.
She said of unhoused people: "I think it's really important to understand that, whatever personification they might have at the time, that person is somebody's sister, brother, daughter, parent, cousin, friend. They've had events happen in their life that they just were not able to overcome."
Being able to get documentation, access a computer and use a phone makes all the difference. She said her clients, without the help of a street outreach worker, can stay in the situation they are in two to three times longer.
"It can break your heart," she said.
Born in Vancouver, Jackson grew up in Toronto and spent time in a shelter herself in the 1990s over the course of two years. That experience gave her a deeper sense of what it means to be homeless. During that time, she put together a calendar of things to do for free and $5 in the city.
In the shelter system, she said there is a wide mix of people, from people who have "uncontrolled mental health" issues to those who have simply lost their jobs. That mix creates tension, she said.
Jackson has a social service worker diploma from Humber College and got a job with the city shortly after she had graduated.
"The most inspiring part is when I can see the cogs really start to turn for my clients. When you see them kind of get that 'Aha, oh yeah, and I did this, and I now can do that, and then I did that, and now I can do this, and that means I can get housing.' They can see that they can reclaim their lives," she said.
According to the city's "Daily Shelter and Overnight Service Usage" web page, about 6,100 people used the city's shelter programs on Jan. 28.