Peter Martin doesn’t get it.

Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis will soon be receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat.

And yet Martin, 59, a former constitutional lawyer who lost everything about a decade ago after a mental breakdown, struggles to survive on just $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the province’s welfare program for the disabled.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said this week from his Junction-area apartment where he is self-isolating with his black cat.

“They are getting $2,000 when they have a house to live in and supports and sometimes savings — as opposed to people like us who live cheque to cheque,” he said.

Many of the financial measures being rolled out by governments to help people weather the COVID-19 storm would be unnecessary if Canada had a basic income policy, say basic income advocates.

“At this point, it would be so good if we could have it in the country,” said Sr. Pauline Lally of the Sisters of Providence in Kingston, Ont. “We really need this basic income. I really, really believe that…. It would be one way to end poverty in Canada.”

Lally is a supporter of the Ontario Basic Income Network and a member of Living Wage Kingston. She points to retired Senator Hugh Segal’s recent book, Bootstraps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada, as a guide to how basic income would transform the country.

In a crisis like COVID-19, a basic income could put the brakes on economic death spirals when hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lose their jobs, said Ontario Basic Income Network external relations co-ordinator Barb Boraks.

From health and safety to the economy, COVID-19 is revealing the penny-pinching of Canadian governments to be pound-foolish.

On April 1, federal health minister Patty Hajdu vocalized this point when she said that successive federal governments have underfunded public health preparedness for decades. The pandemic has also revealed weaknesses in worker protections and the social safety net. For instance, those receiving social assistance or working minimum wage jobs in many cases will make less than the $2,000 monthly Canada Emergency Response Benefit. COVID-19 is showing us how the erosion of social spending has left Canadians vulnerable.

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.