Homelessness in Toronto
This archival page will be about the homeless population in Toronto and their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The homeless population in Toronto faces unique threats in the face of a pandemic. Homeless individuals are often more at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to a variety of factors. First of all, lack of adequate protective equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer increase chances of contraction. Furthermore, the homeless community has high rates of mental and/or physical health conditions, smoking and substance abuse, an increasingly higher average age - reportedly around 65 years - involvment in sex work and occasionally distrust of service providers.
Homeless shelters can produce more complications. Shelters provide places for individuals to seek shelter, food, health care and other services. They are often the one place homeless individuals can turn to if they are in need of anything.
Due to COVID-19 other public services such as community centers, libraries, malls and drop in centers (places that provide services to endangered or disadvantaged groups) have been forced to shut down. These places provided social relationships as well as support for individuals and without them, there may be increased deterioration of mental health among the homeless population. The absence of these services could also encourage homeless people to turn to further substance abuse. This is why Toronto’s homeless need shelters more than ever. However, shelters are also an ideal place for viruses to spread as they are shared living spaces and usually lack proper medical equipment. The staff also often are not properly trained to deal with sick individuals although some shelters have health clinics. All of the individual factors that Toronto’s homeless face in combination with the issues of shelters greatly increase the risks of not only contracting COVID-19 but the severity and lethality of the virus if contracted.
Homeless shelters have been given the difficult task of remaining accessible to the homeless community while maintaining COVID-19 protective measures. An article published June 2020, in the Clinical Infectious Disease journal, stated four factors critical for decreasing the risk of disease contraction or spreading in homeless shelters. They are as follows; increased capacity, access to on site testing, restructuring of physical spaces to accommodate isolation, rapid turnaround tests to allow for quick assessment saving capacity (individuals will not have to isolate while waiting for results). Shelter staff also mention issues shelters face such as lack of time sensitive public health communications and the inability to maintain adequate virus control measures due to limits in equipment and facilities.
Despite best efforts to minimize outbreaks in shelters, it has happened several times. The Willowdale Welcome Center experienced an outbreak around mid April which led to over 80 residents testing positive for COVID-19. This led to larger outbreaks in the homeless community. On April 18th, wearing a mask became required when in shelter common areas or with others but due to minimal equipment, many shelters relied on donated masks. On May 11th, 283 positive COVID-19 tests were connected to the shelter system in Toronto. In late May, there was an outbreak in St. Simon’s Shelter which infected 18 residents and killed 2. The positive case count linked to Toronto’s homeless shelters at the end of the month was 451. August was one of the worst months yet for shelters as both Eva’s Satellite (focused on youth substance abuse and mental health) and one of the COSTI refugee shelters saw outbreaks. Eva’s reported 2 cases on August 23rd and COSTI reported 4 cases on August 26th. By October 1st, 649 positive COVID-19 tests were linked to Toronto’s shelter system.
Some shelters were better prepared than others. The Covenant House is a shelter in Toronto that provides services to homeless, trafficked or at risk youth. Covenant House managed to collaborate with hotels in downtown Toronto to accommodate extra space for homeless youth. As shelters become more crowded, there is simply not enough space in them to maintain physical distancing. Furthermore, individuals who test positive for COVID-19 need to be isolated in a separate room. Covenant house took precautions right away and prepared for a possible outbreak in March.
Covenant House in Toronto Ontario. Its collaberation with hotels in downtown Toronto allowed homeless people to have access to safer living spaces.
It is worth mentioning that there have been clashes between the government and the homeless community. The current bylaw in Toronto states that unless authorized, you are not allowed to live or set up any type of structure in parks. However, outbreaks of COVID-19 in shelters has scared many members of the homeless community into seeking shelter elsewhere. The city initially suspended this bylaw but began evicting parks in May.
A community of tents in Moss Park, Toronto. Homeless people do not want to got to shelters anymore due to outbreaks of COVID-19.
In early October a group of homeless individuals banded together to take the Toronto government to court in order to continue living in parks. They claimed that their human rights are being infringed upon as they are being asked to enter high risk shelters instead of safer, more isolated encampments. In response, the city claimed that the encampments are not safer because they have recurrent incidents of violence, human trafficking and fires.
Tents set up by homeless people at City Hall in Toronto Ontario. Recent legal battles between homeless groups and the government continue.
Khaleel Sievwright is another example of friction between the government and Toronto’s homeless. Recognizing their vulnerability, especially with winter upcoming, Sievwright started building mobile shelters for homeless people. However he received a warning letter from the city explaining that legal action could be taken against him if he continues building and distributing the shelters.
A shelter built by carpenter Khaleel Sievwright in Moss Park, Toronto.
The vulnerability of homeless populations really became transpired during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully lessons from this pandemic can be taught during the next one and the city of Toronto as a whole can support those in need more effectively.