homeless covid 19

Toronto homeless among the most vulnerable during COVID-19 pandemic

Even before this pandemic, Toronto was already in the midst of a poverty and homelessness crisis.

Sylvia Braithwaite says it's within this context that the homelessness support sector now works to manage the pandemic. 

Braithwaite is the Director of Shelters and Women’s 24 Hour Drop-in Services at Fred Victor. She says factors such as lack of food and unbalanced diet, limited access to clean facilities and underlying health conditions, all greatly contribute to the vulnerability of over 9,000 homeless individuals across the city.

“For people experiencing homelessness, there's no option to stay at home and self-isolate. Your options are to sleep rough outdoors, or to enter a shelter with other people,” she said.

“The unfortunate reality is the risk of exposure is heightened in places like shelters, drop-ins, and respites because there are more people in these spaces – though we understand how critical these services are for people who are experiencing homelessness and who have nowhere else to turn.”

These services have become even more limited since in recent weeks.

Susan Bender, Manager of Toronto Drop-in Network (TDIN), says within their network of nearly 60 drop-in centres across the city, only nine are still open.

“Most of our members have closed their drop-in space because they didn't feel they had the space or equipment to be able to maintain the physical distancing and disinfecting directives that we're required to follow,” said Bender.

“For those who are still offering a space, they're limiting the numbers, using tables and chairs to do physical distancing inside and limiting the time that people have inside the space. Because we have fewer numbers, there's also lineups outside waiting.”

Diana McNally, Training and Engagement Coordinator at TDIN, has been taking vacation days to work on the front lines in order to mitigate staffing shortages and says not everyone is getting access to services.

“[The drop-in closures] has created an intense need for the spaces that are still open. We're seeing a lot of need and not the ability to actually serve the people in ways that they require,” she said.

McNally says drop-ins are now having to limit their indoor space to folks who are immediately homeless and are only able to offer take-away meals for those who have some sort of place to go.

“We're talking about homeless folks who are particularly vulnerable, but they're also becoming – and I hate to say this – a public health liability because the City is not taking enough action to bring everyone indoors.”

McNally is worried the City's plans to secure hotel rooms to house the homeless, as well as Toronto Community Housing Corporation's (TCHC) rapid rehousing program, which is to expedite people into individual isolated spaces, isn't happening fast enough. 

“As far as we know, only under 100 people have been actually placed into Toronto Community Housing. That's not going to address the fact that we have probably about 10,000 homeless people," she said. 

"We still have people who are outdoors all the time who aren't able to actually socially isolate, with no real clear planning from the City about whether people are actually going to be put into these spaces." 

McNally says there are already 23 confirmed cases of homeless individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus in Toronto.

"These are people and these are our neighbours," she said. "And we want to make sure that no one is left behind."  

Lead photo by

Fred Victor

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