Government Response in Toronto, Ontario
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and entered Canada, Ontario has had the second-highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country. Unsurprisingly, a decent amount of these cases have been from the city of Toronto. As of writing this page (November 1st, 2020), there have been 42,312 cases in Toronto alone! Since then, Toronto has taken measures to help slow transmission with success in some areas while others have had less success. When the pandemic began, the government quickly took action to help protect the lives, health, and income of more vulnerable groups of people like people of color, the LGBT community, and lower-class families. However, there have been concerns that the Homeless population in Toronto remains one of the most vulnerable groups in the wake of COVID-19, as their primary support systems (Shelters, soup kitchens, etc.) have all had to greatly downscale their operations to try and slow COVID-19 infections. At the government's inaction in initially addressing these concerns, there was an increasingly more vocal call for the government of Toronto to take steps to protect the homeless population during the pandemic, even resulting in a few demonstrations by advocates for the homeless. This issue is not just unique to Toronto, though, as calls for programs to protect the homeless are happening all across North America. However, this page will specifically cover the Toronto Government's efforts to help assist the homeless population and protect them from COVID-19.
To combat the spread of the virus and address the dangers faced by the homeless population of Toronto, the government implemented is what they call a "Three-Tier Response" policy, and additionally aims to improve communication between its departments and its outside partners who focus on issues related to the homeless. As stated, there are three "tiers" to this plan, with each tier focusing on specific prevention, treatment/care, and support networks that have been established to help the homeless. Improved communication between the government branches and its partners will also be an overall goal of the plan laid out by the government.
The first section of the plan is Prevention. The primary objectives of this tier are to "maintain and enhance strong Affection and Control Measures." This system branch is responsible for communicating where infection hotspots are, distributing personal protective equipment to Homeless sectors and shelters, and providing guidance on how to set up and enforce physical distancing in shelters. However, this branch's most notable function is its efforts to open "temporary" new facilities to the homeless population to prevent easier infection due to overcrowding in established shelters and encouraging the homeless population to seek shelter indoors rather than living in encampments. As of writing this, the government claims to have opened 40 additional spaces (including 19 hotels and 130 uninhabited apartment units) and has moved 3,600 people into these temporary shelter spaces. These spaces will be continuously monitored and expanded as needed, with staff ensuring that the facilities remain clean and sanitized.
The second component/tier of this plan is Mitigation. This section aims to essentially provide the homeless with access to test kits, transportation to testing sites, and quarantine areas to unconfirmed cases. To do this, members of this segment of the plan will actively advocate for mobile testing sites to prioritize and visit shelters or areas of the city where there is a homeless population. As of writing this, the government claims to have tested over 4,900 individuals through 98 mobile testing sessions and states that more than 790 clients have been given safe transport to testing sites. Along with access to testing and transportation, this tier also provides isolation programs for individuals whose infection is unknown or who have been in contact with an infected person. This service will also be available to people who have traveled recently or are awaiting test results. In preparation, dedicated locations with health supports have been established. In terms of success, the government claims that 774 homeless people have been provided with isolation using this service.
The third and final section of the government plan is Recovery. The functions of this tier are to provide three services: Recovery/isolation locations and housing. Regarding their goal of providing services to recovering homeless individuals, the government has claimed that they have opened two recovery-sites in Toronto's downtown area, with the first being activated on April 16th, 2020. The second site was opened on May 8th in a different downtown location. Between the two facilities, up to 450 individuals can be served. As for its effectiveness, the government claims that more than 450 clients who were not sick enough to be admitted into hospital services have been provided with isolation to recover. This reduces pressure on both the medical system and preventing further transmission within the shelter system. On top of providing services to help the homeless recover, this section of the plan also aims to provide housing for the homeless population. Efforts to prioritize housing the homeless in vacant community housing units have been made. Leverage investing is also being used to either purchase or secure a long term lease for these vacant units. Additionally, the city of Toronto will be advocating for future stimulus from both the federal and provincial governments to increase support for acquiring affordable and supporting housing to help the homeless properly reintegrate into the system.
Alongside the "Three Tier Response System," the government has improved communication between its departments and outside partners in the healthcare sector. They aim to accomplish this by hosting meetings with "more than 30 agencies across Toronto and 11 City Divisions." Listed groups include Inner City Family Health Team, University Health Network, and the Toronto Centre Local Health Integration Network.
In conclusion, the Toronto government's response to the threat COVID-19 poses to the homeless population has been a campaign of prevention, mitigation, recovery, and improved communication and relationships with outside parties. They are doing this by providing training, supplies, and guidelines to prevent the virus's spread within the shelter system. Alongside this, the government aims to ensure that the homeless have plenty of opportunities to get tested by prioritizing areas of the city with homeless populations and providing transportations to testing sites. They are also ensuring that homeless individuals can safely quarantine and provide temporary housing to keep them off the streets. Lastly, a stronger foundation of communication and partnership between the government and its outside partners to better coordinate and respond more efficiently.
Pictured: The Good Shepard Ministries Homeless Shelter. When the lockdown first began, many homeless shelters either greatly downsized their services, and some just closed entirely to prevent infections. As a result, organizations and shelters that continued to offer services during this time were severely strained due to the increased number of homeless people who were turned away from the normal shelters they used pre-pandemic.
Demonstrators demanding shelter and support services outside of Toronto City Hall on April 15th. The government's lack of action on providing and shelter to the homeless when the lock-down began was the most prominent demand and criticism from advocates and critics.
Social Activist Cathy Crowe attending and speaking at a demonstration outside of Toronto City Hall on April 15th.
Despite the efforts made by the government to house the homeless population, critics and advocates argue that more can still be done.