Comparing Guelph and Toronto - Lived Experience
This section will now look into the experience of homelessness during COVID-19 in Guelph and Toronto in a comparative sense. The demographics and characteristics of Toronto and Guelph are extremely contrasting, and COVID-19’s effects on the homeless in these two locations, therefore, have been diverse in nature. A comparative analysis of these two locations (with respect to the experience(s) of the homeless population), and how this relates to the unique demographic and economic characteristics of each city will supply an understanding of the diverse nature of large cities and small cities, and how COVID-19 has had a unique effect on each.
Let us first take a look at some statistics:
As gathered in a 2017 census, the City of Guelph has a population of about 135,474 and a land area of about 87.2 km², and therefore a population density of about 1,553.6/km². Guelph-Wellington county has a population of about 374,710, and of that, about 325 individuals are homeless (as of 2018). 23% use emergency shelters and about 56% are either couch surfing, in a hospital, hotel/motel, or jail.
The City of Toronto (Canada’s largest city) has a population of about 2.93 million (as estimated in 2017 as well), a land area of about 630.2 km², and therefore population density of about 4,649.32/km². The city’s population is rapidly growing and is estimated to be at about 3.5 million by 2030. Of this population, 10,000 Torontonians, every night, are sleeping either outdoors, in a homeless centre, or in a health facility.
There is much that can be taken from understanding the homeless situation in each location, comparatively speaking. Per capita (at a given point in time) homelessness in Toronto is higher than in Guelph (Guelph-Wellington county for statistical sake, see graph to the right). This can be attributed to a variety of factors. For example, as argued by homelessness activists, the high rent prices in the City of Toronto, and its uniquely high price range compared to smaller, more out of city locations have led to this.
Given this, each city’s homeless situation during the pandemic has been diverse as well. First off, given the nature of the virus and its spreading ability, the significantly higher population density of Toronto will leave Torontonians at higher risk of transmission. Yet while most of Toronto’s population has had the ability to keep the risk of infection down by staying not just inside, but inside either alone or with a small group of people (i.e. family), homeless folks generally do not have this luxury. Much of the homeless problem in Toronto has been (prior to the pandemic) aided by a variety of public programs and centres. However, what the pandemic has prevented (as we all know) is the ability for people to gather safely in closely proximate environments. Centres that were once a savior to many homeless individuals are now extremely unsafe due to their high risk of virus transmission. Worse yet, the closures of these centres have been extremely detrimental to the homeless population (as will be explored in other sections).
Referring back to the correlation between homelessness and housing, experts have also argued that the uniqueness of Toronto’s economy and demographics have during the COVID-19 pandemic, represent issues that were present before the pandemic began. Experts have identified a housing crisis in Toronto, as real estate prices have risen rapidly in recent years, pushing more Torontonians out of the market and close to if not below the poverty line. As noted by Canadian scholar and urban designer Patrick Condon, “the average home price in Canada has doubled in the last 15 years”, while “wages have essentially remained flat”.1 A similar issue was addressed in the City of Ottawa, the second most populated city in Ontario with a population density of about 356.57/km². Here, the city government pledged to spend $1 Billion over 6 months to buy properties on the market and transform them into housing for those at risk of homelessness. All of which was discussed by Meredith MacLeod in a CTV News article.
The situation in Guelph was both similar and different. Homelessness has been a major issue in the City of Guelph for years, and here, COVID-19 also clearly represented this issue. However, the difficulties have been somewhat unique in Guelph as descibed in the Wellington Advertiser. While the situation in Toronto (as outlined in “Homelessness in Toronto”) was extremely complex and problematic (with outbreaks, capacity issues, etc), the Guelph homeless population living in shelters were able to relocate to a nearby Holiday Inn Express. Plans to move this population from the Holiday Inn to the LHSTAP at Ignatius Jesuit Centre in November have also been carried out. This plan, along with a new model to tackle homelessness overall, improved the services aiding the homeless population in a variety of ways, particularly regarding protection against virus transmission. In Guelph, it is noted by many that the smaller feel to their sense of community enabled a unique outplay with respect to addressing homelessness. Despite all of this however, the homeless situation in Guelph during the pandemic has not been without its difficulties. This issue has and still remains a major problem in the City of Guelph (as of Toronto). Troubles in the mixed fight against both COVID-19 and homelessness in Guelph have been observable. For example, there are consistent issues surrounding funding that have limited a variety of services to be administered, creating barriers in the overall fight against poverty and homelessness in the city.
Both Guelph and Toronto have had a similar experience regarding their issue of homelessness and how their own homeless population has experienced the Pandemic. Yet despite this, their unique demographic characteristics and economic conditions have gone to write a different story for each.
In Guelph, the situation of homelessness was met with the quick action of centre relocation, yet (as Toronto) also brought about public attention to a generally overlooked issue. Despite funding issues and a variety of other barriers, the homeless experience in Guelph during the pandemic has represented how smaller communities are able to tackle certain issues in unique ways.
Regarding Toronto, while one may have assumed that a city known for its large population and economy would have been able to provide quality services during an emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic has gone to show the downfaults of such a social and economic disposition. It is fair to say that no one could have predicted a situation in which there was such a pressing threat to the gathering of large quantities of people in close proximities, yet COVID-19 has supplied new and unique circumstances as to how we function in society, and more specifically, how we address homelessness.
Homeless person in front of Old City Hall in Toronto.
Comparing apples to oranges (analogy).