Protesters keep their distance at Toronto City Hall while demanding action for the homeless. Michael Swan

Homeless advocates make a plea for help

  • April 25, 2020

Doctors and homeless advocates are demanding government action to address what they call an inadequate response to COVID-19 outbreaks among Toronto’s homeless.

Their concern is so great that they have also reached out to Doctors Without Borders, experts in Third World medicine who before now had never operated in Canada.

“It’s just going to rip through (Toronto’s homeless),” street nurse Cathy Crowe said at an April 15 protest outside Toronto City Hall. “If this had been the Mississauga train disaster or something like that there would have been immediate action. This feels like molasses.”

The city staff who co-ordinate Toronto’s system of 72 shelter and respite sites — 11 operated by the city and 61 run by community and church non-profit agencies — say they began planning for COVID-19 in March, “before there were any cases within the city’s shelter system.” It will take the city until April 30 to remove 1,850 people from crowded shelters into hotel rooms, community centres and empty Toronto Community Housing units.

Though the city said it has lined up 1,200 hotel rooms for the homeless, less than half of them were filled on April 17.

The Good Shepherd had been scheduled to receive 50 hotel rooms on April 15, but was delayed by last-minute “contract problems.” The move finally occurred on April 20.

Nobody knows the exact number of COVID-19 infections among Toronto’s 8,000 to 9,000 homeless people. The official count as of April 20 at the 11 facilities operated by the City of Toronto was 83 positive cases and more than 150 shelter residents have been sent into mandated isolation. Data was not available for the 61 facilities run by community, non-profit and church organizations, many of which are drop-ins or soup kitchens, not overnight facilities.

More than 300 doctors who work with homeless and destitute patients have signed a letter to Mayor John Tory, Premier Doug Ford and key health officials demanding swift action.

“Unless there is ongoing, rapid action, we will see preventable deaths and outbreaks with broad public health implications during this pandemic,” said the letter.

“If we can’t create safety for the people who are most vulnerable in society, then we can’t assure the safety of all people,” said Dr. Michaela Beder, one of 313 doctors demanding action.

But finding safe housing is only part of the problem, said the Good Shepherd’s Br. David Lynch.

“It would be great to open 7,000 additional spaces, but how would these spaces be staffed?” he asked. “You cannot just hire anyone and throw them into a shelter and expect them to relate to the population… Finding the appropriately skilled staff willing to work in this environment is one of the major obstacles.”

Inner City Health Associates — a group of more than 100 physicians and 50 nurses working in over 50 shelters and drop-ins — is organizing a 400-bed COVID-19 recovery site to care for the homeless and destitute. They’ve called in Doctors Without Borders/Medecins San Frontieres to advise them on staff safety, patient flow and infection control using their experience in some of the poorest countries in the world. 

It’s the first time MSF has operated inside Canada.

Front-line workers at The Good Shepherd are anxious. One of their colleagues is in quarantine with several others isolated and awaiting test results.

“Most, if not all, are concerned,” Lynch told The Catholic Register. “One suddenly quit today (April 16). We are in a high-risk category and high-risk environment for catching the virus.”

Keeping men two metres apart in a shelter is challenging. The Good Shepherd normally fills 95 beds each night. But many beds are now out of commission. Upper bunks are not being used to prevent the coronavirus spread, which means  50 hotel rooms are needed to maintain the same level of service.

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