Coronavirus: Advocates for Toronto’s homeless plead for major increase in accommodations, testing

Advocates for Toronto’s homeless population are pleading for urgent action to prevent a large outbreak of coronavirus in the community and in shelters.

“Time is not on our side. This needs to happen right now,” Anne Egger, a nurse practitioner who works with people experiencing homelessness, said during a news conference outside Toronto city hall Wednesday afternoon.

“They live, eat and sleep in overcrowded shelters within a couple of feet of each other. Add in a communicable infection into this mix, and you have a disaster with epidemic proportions ready to explode with catastrophic consequences.”

The calls for increased assistance come after officials announced on Tuesday that an individual at Seaton House, one of Toronto’s largest shelters, tested positive for COVID-19. To date, eight people in the shelter system are confirmed to have the virus, according to city staff.

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and an advocate for those who are homeless in Toronto, said shelter conditions have been bad for some time.

She said she is aware of many instances where physical distancing advice on being more than six feet away from someone isn’t being followed (e.g. beds too close together, bunkbeds etc.) as well as instances where comprehensive screening wasn’t done. Crowe called for an order to enforce the distancing.

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“This is outrageous,” she told reporters.

“As a nurse, I do not understand this.”

She called on the Ontario government to prioritize testing for those in the shelter system, saying shelters should be treated the same as long-term care facilities, except the clients are more mobile.

Crowe estimated there are approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people who are homeless and those who use shelters, adding there are 500 to 1,000 people who live on Toronto’s streets.

However, she pointed to a recent City announcement that 1,200 rooms have been rented or are in the process of being rented. Crowe said there needs to be a large increase in the number of accommodations available to people.

“Way too slow… It needs to be like a military-style operation — massive, moving heaven and earth,” she said when asked about the more than 300 hotel rooms that have been occupied by those who are homeless.

Mary-Anne Bedard, the City of Toronto’s general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, said moving hundreds of people into hotels is a “very complicated issue.”

“There are also significant logistics involved. We have to make sure that there are staff on site, that we have fire and life safety checks done, that we have contracts in place for food and cleaning and linen, and also we have to develop a fairly complicated transportation plan,” she said, adding City staff are moving as quickly as possible.

“We also want to make sure it’s a tiered response based on people’s vulnerabilities so we’re moving the most vulnerable people first.”

Bedard said work has been ongoing on several fronts such as working with existing shelters and securing additional personal protective equipment.

De Villa said since shelters have been following advice from Toronto Public Health, right now there “doesn’t appear to be any merit or need for an order to be given.”

“Effective public health measures are best done on a voluntary basis. We only go to issuing orders on an as-needed basis,” she said.

“In this case, we’re seeing the kind of response we would expect to see from our colleagues in order to best protect the health of the resident within the shelter and respite settings as well as the staff who work in those settings.”

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