The death toll of the housing crisis
In Toronto, a homeless person dies every two days. This number is nearly double what it was three years ago, showing that the problem is getting worse. It would be naïve to assume these numbers aren’t in fact higher, as it is difficult to calculate just how many people are living on the streets, and not all homeless deaths are reported as such, including those who die in hospitals and emergency rooms.
It’s no mystery why this is happening in a city where it takes 9.9 times the median wage to purchase a median home. Property values continue to be driven up artificially, not by any new value added to them, but because the housing market is treated as a casino for capitalists to play their luck at. This pushes people out of the market, leaving them unable to afford a basic need – shelter.
Over half of these deaths are due to drug toxicity, that is, the drug supply that people are using being tainted or poisoned. This makes the spike in homeless deaths just one of the horrific consequences of the general opioid crisis that Canada is facing. It is no surprise that the most vulnerable are feeling the effects of this problem the most severely. While there are some harm reduction supports in a number of shelters across Toronto, these are like using a band aid to treat a bullet wound. Ultimately, drug use is a way to cope with the horrible conditions and survive the day to day struggle of being out on the streets. So long as people are pushed into miserable conditions of homelessness, there will be a need to turn to drugs as a way to escape reality. Tackling drug use on its own doesn’t actually address the problem that is leading to the drug use in the first place – the poverty and hopelessness created by capitalism.
The youth are particularly hit hard by homelessness, with students dealing with rising tuition rates on top of the rent and cost of living crises. In fact, before the pandemic even hit, a Toronto shelter reported that one third of its residents were students, one being a computer science major at the University of Toronto and his high school’s valedictorian. This is a Canada-wide problem—on the west coast, 11 per cent of British Columbia’s homeless population are below the age of 25 and 40 per cent of University of British Columbia students report low to very low food security. The homelessness crisis is a problem that impacts all of society, though the capitalists benefit from it while workers and youth are left to starve.
Blame for the spike in deaths rests on the total inadequacy of the system to support homeless people. Of the 216 homeless people who died in 2021, 132 were living in shelters. These shelters are chronically underfunded, overcrowded, and unsafe. It is not at all uncommon for outbreaks of flus and illnesses to occur. The limited resources and miserable conditions are a breeding ground for fights and violence as well. As homeless advocates point out, it is the policies of the city that create unsafe conditions for homeless people, conditions that lead to their deaths.
This is social murder, which Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, explained is:
“…when society [the class which holds social and political control – the capitalist class] places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”
As one homeless advocate said, “There is just a deep, deep sense of loss that these are people like you or I who ended up in a position where they couldn’t afford rent or they couldn’t afford their mortgage. Homelessness in Canada is a death sentence, really.”
The problem is capitalism
Underlying all of this is the lack of affordable housing created by Toronto’s overheated real estate market, which has pushed almost 10,000 people onto the streets. This shortage in housing is entirely artificial, and created in the interests of profit.
Ten years ago, investors were the smallest segment of homebuyers in Ontario. Today, they are the largest, making up 25 per cent of homebuyers. This is more concentrated in Toronto, where 40 per cent of condos are owned for investment purposes, not primary housing. This creates an upwards pressure on property values, with housing prices more than doubling since pre-pandemic levels. With fewer people able to afford to buy a home, this pushes rental prices up as well. The capitalist investors and landlords use housing, which is a basic need for all, as a cash cow. They purchase homes and develop luxury condos for the sole purpose of profiting off of them and thus benefit from increased rents and property values, even though this means more and more people are unable to secure housing.
The homelessness crisis has of course been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where more workers were pushed to the streets, and outbreaks in shelters left people between the rock of infection and the hard place of living outdoors. Tent cities rose up across Toronto in various parks, as homeless people came together and shared tents and resources. Last year, these tent cities were crushed by the police at the request of Toronto Mayor John Tory, costing the city $2 million. As we explained at the time, this money could’ve been spent on public housing rather than brutalizing homeless people and kicking them to the streets. Though encampments don’t solve homelessness, shutting them down leaves people isolated and vulnerable, whereas in these encampments, people help keep each other safe in emergencies.
However, homelessness isn’t just a pandemic problem. The average rent for all property types in the GTA was $2,482 in July 2022, and $2,409 in January 2020, just before the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the housing crisis, but the crisis was already here. Going into the pandemic, over half of Canadians were living paycheque to paycheque. Precarious housing and homelessness are all intrinsic to the capitalist system which turns every last human necessity into a source of profits for the capitalists and landlords.
Today, with interest rates continuing to rise and the mortgage crisis looming, no worker is safe from homelessness. The issue will just get worse in the winter months, while parasitic landlords eat up the workers paycheques, investors further buy up housing stock and drive up prices, and inflation puts even more pressure on the pocketbooks of the working class.
The capitalist system can only provide a good life to a minority in society, the capitalists, and only to the detriment of the rest of us. Only a socialist system would be able to seize investment properties and house the working class and youth, while also taking the profits of the capitalists and investing them in high-quality affordable housing, training and putting the unemployed population to work in re-organizing society, and put the economy into the hands of the working class to run democratically for the good of the majority, not the enrichment of a minority. We need a militant class struggle to fight against inflation, fight for good quality housing for all, an end to the profit-based housing system and thus, an end to the capitalist system as a whole!