Mitigating the Spread of COVID-19 in our Shelter System

This afternoon, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa, along with senior City staff and in partnership with University Health Network, provided an update on the City’s ongoing COVID-19 response to support and protect people relying on our shelter system and those experiencing homelessness. 

The City of Toronto has been working around the clock since January to prepare our COVID-19 response, reduce transmission in our shelters, and ensure safe continuation of the services that serve people experiencing homelessness. We have implemented an inter-governmental and cross-sectoral response to COVID-19 involving the city, the province, the federal government, and the community non-profit sector. Our City-Community Response Table meets daily, and includes representation from more than 30 agencies and 11 City divisions. Our work is informed by the goals of reducing spread, saving lives, and protecting our most vulnerable.

Before this crisis, Toronto already had the largest and most extensive shelter system in Canada. We had 72 shelter/respite sites sheltering more than 7,000 people every night, including the almost 3,000 people already sheltered in hotels/family settings.  Eleven of these locations were operated by the City, and 61 programs were operated by community non-profit agencies. 

As of today, there have been 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 identified in seven City shelters. Our planning has made it possible for City staff to act quickly and relocate these individuals to the City’s isolation facility, which has been expanded into a hotel in order to serve 200 people. 

To facilitate physical distancing in our shelters and respite centres, the City has opened new spaces in community centres, hotel rooms, and permanent housing units. Thus far, City staff have relocated over 1,000 clients to these locations, with nearly 500 people moved from the shelter system into hotel rooms, and more each day.  City staff are working with our partners in the health care sector to identify clients who are most vulnerable, to prioritize their transition. City staff are on track to move another 1,000 people into new spaces by the end of this month.

At our shelters and respite centres, we have put in place measures for Public Health-guided screenings. If a client is experiencing symptoms, we have set up direct transportation to an assessment centre for testing. While waiting for results, clients are taken to our dedicated isolation facility, where medical supports and harm reduction services are available. To date, more than 175 clients have been supported at our isolation facility while waiting for results. The City is continuing to advocate to the Province for increased testing for all shelter clients and staff. 

For clients of the shelter system that test positive for COVID-19, the City has established a dedicated recovery program. This program provides safe hotel accommodation for clients who have tested positive, where they can recover with access to food, laundry, and round-the-clock medical support. The City is in the final stages of working with the Ontario Government to finalize the health supports necessary to launch the program. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City has been enhancing our street outreach response. This includes a moratorium on clearing any encampments, with a focus on safety and education. We have also set up portable washrooms and handwashing stations for better access, and provide information through outreach on symptoms, screening and testing options. 

Toronto’s shelter system is the largest in Canada. While City staff manage our shelters and administer services to people experiencing homelessness, participation from all levels of government is required to address this crisis. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 within this vulnerable population necessitates an active partnership between the health sector, the community sector, and the housing sector, as well as funding and support from the City, the province, and the federal government. 

The challenge we are facing today did not occur overnight. It was created through years of inadequate funding for social housing, services for people experiencing homelessness, and access to physical and mental health supports. This crisis is also a chance to fix the longstanding issues of our current system and invest in new solutions, including permanent affordable and supportive housing. 

Any real, long-term solution requires a partnership with the Province and the Federal government. While the City has acted quickly to try to avoid worst-case scenarios in our shelter system, it’s clear that much more needs to be done. I will continue to advocate for more action to protect our most vulnerable, and for all levels of government to step up and do their part.