Homeless in Canada. Homeless in Canada. Photo: Ted McGrath - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The cost-of-living crisis has resulted in huge rises in frostbite amputations among the homeless in Canada, reports John Clarke

In the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, the most horrific manifestation of the present economic and social crisis has emerged. Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people who had to undergo amputations because exposure to the extreme cold of winter had resulted in frostbite.

Last November, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) asked Alberta Health Services (AHS) for information on frostbite amputations and were told that no records were kept on this issue. However, a freedom-of-information request revealed this to be untrue, and ‘an alarming story’ emerged.

The figures obtained from AHS show the number of frostbite diagnoses and amputations in each of the two cities, dating back more than a decade. In Edmonton, there were 166 such diagnoses in the fiscal year 2011-12. By 2020-21, this had risen to 478 and, last year, it shot up to a staggering 786. There were also 91 frostbite amputations, compared to forty the previous year. In Calgary, they increased from 19 to 65 during the same period.

While these official figures don’t specifically track people based on their housing status, the CBC interviewed a highly experienced emergency doctor, Sandy Dong, who was confident that ‘the data confirms what he and his colleagues witnessed last winter.’ ‘The vast, vast majority of these individuals were unhoused. I can think of one person out of those, I’m going to say, scores, that had a permanent address,’ Dong stated. He went on to add, ‘I think you can draw a straight line between our housing crisis and these outcomes.’

The CBC report grimly points out that the ‘loss of body parts due to prolonged exposure to cold weather is one of the more visceral risks endured by people without stable access to safe housing, but it’s far from the only one.’ It points out that one related danger that has claimed the lives of homeless people in recent years is that of the lighting of ‘fires while trying to stay warm’. There are also elevated risks of ‘violence, sexual assault, and property theft’ and, in Edmonton last year, there was ‘an outbreak of shigella, a bacteria which causes dysentery and is typically found in areas where people lack access to basic sanitation.’

Factors at work

The impact of the pandemic and the resulting economic dislocation have obviously intensified the homeless crisis. Last April, it was reported that the ‘number of people experiencing homelessness has doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to increase, according to the City of Edmonton’s new homelessness and encampment strategy.’

The city administration was very aware at that time that there would be ‘continued growth in outdoor encampments and people without shelter.’ It noted that in ‘2016, the city’s 311 service received 790 calls about encampments. There were more than 6,200 requests in 2021.’

It must be stressed, however, that longer-term factors are also at work. These most certainly include Canada’s dispossession and longstanding abandonment of Indigenous people. Though only 5% of Edmonton’s population is Indigenous, ‘51% of the individuals surveyed in Edmonton’s Homeless Count identified as Indigenous.’ A comparable situation exists all across the country.

In 2020, Statistics Canada reported that ‘almost one-third of Canadian households live in an inadequate or unaffordable or unsuitable dwelling [while] one-tenth are in core housing need.’ This situation has been created by a process that can be termed the commodification of housing. Canadian governments in the 1990s pulled out of social-housing provisions and left the field open to developers and speculators.

In February of last year, a study was conducted of ‘the world’s least affordable housing markets.’ The researchers compared a number of cities and, after dividing median housing price by median household income, came up with a rating system under which anything more than 5.1 was considered ‘severely unaffordable’. At 8.6, Toronto was less affordable than London or San Francisco and, at a staggering 11.9, Vancouver was beaten only by Hong Kong.

Certainly, the present driving up of interest rates is ‘cooling’ the inflated housing market somewhat, but this is by no means an entirely positive development. Hard-pressed homeowners face the risk of default, as mortgage costs are forced up. On top of this, as the buying of a home becomes a tougher proposition, the increased demand for rental housing is pushing up costs.

It was reported in December that ‘Rental rates are soaring across Canada. Over the past year, average rent prices have increased nearly 18 percent in Ontario, 15 percent in British Columbia, and 12 percent in Alberta – while in Atlantic Canada rents have risen by a whopping 32.2 percent compared to last year.’ Such increases in rent are directly responsible for putting people out on the streets and, in turn, creating the kind of appalling developments we are seeing in Alberta’s major cities.

The proliferation of poverty in Canada, of which the homeless crisis is the sharpest manifestation, has been taken forward by a systematic and ruthless agenda of austerity. A ‘decline of income and social assistance in Canada’ has been a major cause of ‘the rise of homelessness over the past 30 years.’ Things have reached the point where on ‘any given night, 35,000 Canadians are homeless and at least 235,000 people experience homelessness in a year.’ Dangerous and even lethal exposure to bitterly cold Canadian winters is one of the results of this.

This accumulation of factors over a long period has produced a chronic prevalence of widespread destitution but the presently unfolding cost-of-living crisis is taking the situation to a new level. Arianna Scott, the CEO of Food Banks Alberta, has suggested that the ‘increase (of homelessness) in Alberta is really just a perfect storm of low wages, loss of wages, high housing prices, high prices for food and fuel and utilities and all of that coming together at a time when the world was kind of collapsing down on top of us.’ She added that: ‘It’s very similar across the country. Every province across the country you’re seeing increases and struggles.’

Social abandonment

The process of outright social abandonment that leaves people to freeze on the streets certainly can’t be explained in terms of a lack of resources. Canada is a member of the G7 and one of the richest countries on the face of the earth. Moreover, even as growing numbers of people experience homelessness or live under the threat of destitution, vast numbers of homes sit empty, many of them for purposes of parasitic speculation. A study conducted last year found that there were 1.3 million vacant homes in Canada, enough to house the homeless population several times over.

The sharp increase in frostbite amputations in Calgary and Edmonton is a very grim sign of the times and a disturbing indication of what lies ahead. This dreadful development is the product of a housing crisis that is spinning out of control, yet, very far from taking steps to bring it under control, the Bank of Canada is forcing up interest rates, putting even more people at risk of losing their homes, and every level of government is continuing the assault on public services. In the 1840s, Friedrich Engels used the term ‘social murder’ to describe the lethal results of the conditions he saw imposed on workers and their families in Manchester. This term surely applies to a situation where, in cities with vast wealth and resources like Calgary and Edmonton, people are left out on the streets to die from the extreme cold or succumb to horrific frostbite injuries. It should serve as a warning that the drive to impose the impacts of the ‘polycrisis’ of capitalism on working-class people will be brutal and unsparing. The need for a fighting response could not be clearer and more obvious.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.