Being homeless means you are more vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease than are people with housing. The rigours of life on the streets mean that people experiencing homelessness have compromised health and are vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease. Our institutional response to homelessness that largely relies on emergency services such as shelters and day programs compounds the problem by forcing people into congregate settings that are often overcrowded, lack private spaces and do not have adequate resources to enhance and protect personal hygiene. Many people experiencing homelessness are also forced to spend much or all of their time in public spaces.

All of this suggests that we need extraordinary measures to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

Accessing a sanitary bathroom is now more of a challenge for some of the city’s homeless amid COVID-19 business and municipal facillity closures.

Regular hand washing with soap and water is one of the first things public health officials in Canada and with the World Health Organization, recommend to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses. But accessing a sink and soap, isn’t always possible for those on the streets.

Out of the Cold is a community-based, volunteer-run winter shelter that provides accommodation to those experiencing homelessness in Halifax. Its co-founder Jeff Karabanow says the city shutting down, has created even more instability for the homeless population.

“With the libraries and a lot of other public places closed, the washroom piece is really problematic,” says Karabanow. “For now if you are not connected with a shelter, I’m not sure if there are other places you can go.”

In quiet neighbourhoods all over Canada, families are sheltering at home alone, refusing to give the Coronavirus a chance to spread. But tens of thousands don’t have that option.

“I’m in Calgary,” Tim Richter said the other day over the phone. “Calgary has the largest emergency centre in North America. That’s the Calgary Drop-in Centre. They had 850 people there for dinner the other day. And in Alberta they’ve banned gatherings of more than 15 people.”

To Richter, the founder and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the vulnerability of Canadians experiencing homelessness is a familiar story. To governments, which have begun to realize the potential for a COVID-19 flareup in vulnerable populations, these people are a key part of a massive crisis.

The government has rightly recognized that people need financial assistance during these difficult times. We are very supportive of the government’s legislation, passed last week, that’s meant to help. But Canada could be doing much more to provide financial support quickly and effectively in this time of crisis. And we already have the tools in place.

We should be implementing universal income — money that is sufficient to meet basic needs and provide stability, sent directly to Canadians below a certain income threshold.

Poverty has long weighed on Hugh Segal’s mind. For decades, the former senator has been a vocal champion for a guaranteed basic income to lift the country’s poorest out of the cycle of poverty. He credits his formative years, growing up in an immigrant family in Montreal’s working-class Plateau neighbourhood, for sowing the seeds of his advocacy.

“What bothers me the most about [poverty] is the amount of people whose lives are being wasted because they’re caught in a scramble of too many jobs, too little pay, insufficient resources to cover rent, food, transport, clothes,” he said, in an interview. “Their kids pay a huge price, and it produces all kinds of difficulties.”

Amid a public health emergency that relies on people keeping six feet apart to halt the spread of COVID-19, a team is putting on a full court press to deal with one group of citizens.

Housing Nova Scotia, the Halifax Regional Municipality, the YMCA, and agencies such as the Salvation Army and Shelter Nova Scotia are trying to reduce by 50% the number of homeless men and women crowding into emergency shelters.

“Those who are in a shelter or without shelter cannot self-isolate,” wrote Meghan Laing, Chair of Shelter Nova Scotia in a letter published on the website yesterday. “With large numbers in small spaces that is impossible. We are scrambling to find temporary alternatives to overcrowded conditions”.

When you lock people down (to save their lives), you inevitably close down a lot of the economy as well. And the lockdown will definitely have to last in most countries until May or June — Donald Trump’s promise of a “beautiful timeline” to reopening the U.S. economy just two weeks hence being delusional.

So where’s the money coming from in the meantime?

The majority of people still have jobs they get paid for: people in essential services who have to go to work, people who can do their work from home, and quite a few others as well.

However, between a third and quarter of the employed population has been left idle as their employers, from airlines to retail businesses, downsize or shut temporarily. If you leave these people without income, then you are reproducing the conditions of the Great Depression of the 1930s when unemployment peaked at 24 per cent in the United States and the country’s GDP shrank by almost half.