Being an outreach worker is like doing palliative care: Lorraine Lam
My name is Lorraine Lam. I am an outreach worker and a community case manager in the downtown east area of Toronto.
Why is there a housing crisis in Toronto today?
The way that we approach housing right now is as a commodity and not as a human right, so conversations around the financialization of housing are really important. The fact that people can buy up so much property and housing and use it for profit while there are so many people who don’t have access to housing, I think that’s a really big problem.
The other thing is that we haven’t talked about social assistance rates very much. We talk about inflation in so many other contexts, right? Oh, cauliflower is $8.99, but we don’t talk about the fact that social assistance rates have not gone up since the ’90s. How is anybody supposed to afford rent when the average market rent for a one bedroom in Toronto is about $2,000, but someone on welfare only gets $600 for basic needs and housing?
Those are, I think, really two big important pieces around this housing crisis.
During COVID, the federal government decided, okay, people are going to get $2,000 a month because then it’s the bare minimum that folks need to survive. The government decided that $2,000 is what people needed, but social assistance rates are nowhere near those amounts. The factor is significantly lower. Why is that?
What can we do to create a fully housed Toronto?
The solution to the homelessness reality is to build housing. Right now, we live in this time where decision-makers and people in power are talking about affordable housing, but it’s not actually affordable to a lot of people, especially to people on social assistance.
What we desperately need are so many more geared-to-income housing units to ensure that people on social assistance and people who are on low income can afford that. I think that’s a really big piece. We need to stop this reality of people being able to just buy properties for investment. Again, speaking to the financialization of housing, I think that’s a really big problem.
And then we need to increase social assistance rates.
The rates that people have to survive on right now is impossible. We see people who are forced to make a choice between getting a monthly transportation pass or getting groceries, and so if people don’t have access to basic needs like food, water, shelter, then people will die. I think those are some of the really immediate things that we need.
Why is creating a fully housed Toronto important to you?
I’ve lost a lot of people to preventable deaths, lost a lot of people way too young. And I think sometimes when I talk about this work, people are often like, oh, that’s so great, you work with people who are homeless. But often I see this as actually palliative care work.
There are a lot of people who I’m supporting who, frankly, I’m not sure if housing will ever be a reality for them. And so it almost feels like working with folks is just about helping people maintain dignity of life, and perhaps they might die on the streets before they even get housed.
What gives you hope in the midst of this crisis?
Hope is a hard question because some days things are exhausting, and it feels like things are not changing. But I do remind myself that hope is a discipline, and I try to tell myself to discipline myself to learn what it means to hope.
And then there are little things that happen in the community and in the work that really encourage me.
Right now, for instance, so many more people are talking about this reality, and I feel like for a long time, especially before COVID, people were not as receptive or as open to talking about this, and at least now we’re having more conversations.
So that’s hopeful.
Maybe people are finally realizing the urgency of it.
I think the other thing too is just seeing how the community themselves have kept each other safe, have looked out for each other, have survived over the years.
So the fact that the community is still around and they’re fighting hard for their rights, for their belonging, I think that encourages me, too.