Six months in, thousands of families have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The economic and social toll of the epidemic has been crushing. We have seen heroic efforts by front line workers and support workers in long-term care homes, shelters, hospitals, and food service providers. Millions have made sacrifices to help limit spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

But here’s another facet of the epidemic: COVID-19 has cruelly exposed the long-standing inequalities in our country. Data from public health units across the country show low income households and communities of colour being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.

As winter approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic drags on in the context of a city-wide drug problem, homeless Winnipeggers, and the organizations trying to meet their needs, are facing unprecedented hardship, including scrambling for additional low income housing and shelter beds.

Members of the City’s committee on Protection, Community Services and Parks heard testimony on Friday morning from social service organizations, all needing more resources and support to manage Winnipeg’s escalating poverty crisis.

The idea of a universal basic income, a system through which everyone is guaranteed to receive a base level of money periodically, is quickly gaining traction in Canada as the federal government looks for ways to tackle the economic downturn left in the wake of mandatory pandemic shut-downs.

Implementing a universal basic income would mean that every Canadian, regardless of whether or not they have a job, would receive enough money to cover the basic cost of living. Politicians and activists alike have been urgently discussing the need for a basic income as Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) comes to an end.

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) supports access to a universal basic income that aligns with four core principles: human rights, equitable access, poverty reduction and adequacy.

Although there is no single definition of “basic income,” it is generally understood as an unconditional payment from the government to individuals or families, to ensure a minimum income level. Typically there are “no strings attached” to receiving a basic income, and recipients are not required to work, look for work, or participate in education or training to receive the payment. In a universal basic income program, benefits are paid to everyone, regardless of their level of income, and this type of model can be supported by Canada’s progressive income tax system where benefits can be “recovered” from households with higher levels of income.

There’s nothing like telling people to socially distance themselves from one another to stay safe in a pandemic to drive home the plight of those who are homeless.

Tens of thousands of Canadians don’t have a room of their own, let alone a home. They’re at the mercy of overcrowded shelter systems that warehouse people at night and send them back on the streets every morning, clutching their belongings.

For years governments have known that emergency shelters were, in fact, providing permanent housing for far too many people. There’s been a great deal of talk about how terrible this situation is and how people need to be moved out of the shelter system and into affordable or supportive housing.

While emergency shelter at the Radisson Hotel has proven to be a success in helping the homeless during the pandemic, residents in nearby areas say it has worsened crime and made them afraid to walk in their own neighbourhoods.

When the pandemic hit, officials moved quickly to find housing that would allow shelter residents to self-isolate, moving almost 100 men to the Radisson Hotel near Fairway Road. The move was transformative: the stable housing allowed social agencies to provide better health and addiction care, reduced the number of violent incidents, and led to more men move into permanent housing.

But neighbours say they are eager to see residents move out at the end of September or early in October.

They say shelter residents root through garbage and dump it on people’s property. They complain about open drug use and drug dealing, people relieving themselves in public and discarded needles and other paraphernalia.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an awkward time to propose exiting food banks as a response to widespread food insecurity. Food bank use, after all, is surging.

However, research has long shown that feeding surplus food to those left behind in wealthy, food-secure Canada is ineffective, inequitable and an affront to human dignity.

In a democratic society that values tolerance, equity and human rights, food banks are symbols of public policy neglect. They enable indifferent governments to ignore the moral crisis of domestic hunger.