City’s shelter system deals with coronavirus overload

"Everyone is working 24/7 at the city, but with the historic lack of action around housing and homelessness we’re coming face to face with what a health crisis looks like.”

Last Thursday around noon, a man of about 40 who looked like he’d slept in his clothes was pacing restlessly up and down the subway platform at Castle Frank station, yelling at no one in particular. “He appeared to be homeless and was very distraught,” recalls Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary, a drop-in for street-involved people on Charles east of Bloor. The man calmed down when Cook went over and talked to him.

“He was hungry and just terrified, really,” Cook says. “He was panhandling and there was no-one around to give him money.” When the manager at a nearby Tim Hortons yelled at the man to move on, he lost it.

Food security is a huge issue now that homeless and street-involved people have no way to get money since precautions against the spread of COVID-19 have emptied the streets.

Rafi Aaron co-chair of the Beth Sholom/Beth Tzedec Out of the Cold shelter on Eglinton says the city’s COVID-19 response to homeless and shelter populations has been slow.

“If I were to take you to a permanent shelter now, there’s rules about how many metres the beds should be separated. But they’re inches apart and people are sneezing and coughing on one another. They shouldn’t be in these conditions in the first place, ever, particularly in a pandemic.”

In an email sent on March 5 to the city’s Shelter, Support & Housing Administration division (SSHA), Dixon Hall, Toronto Public Health and city councillors, Aaron, who is also a member of the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, appealed for an accelerated response to the needs of shelter, respite and drop-in clients. The email recommended decreasing the number of guests sleeping at each site, isolation rooms in hotels for the sick and additional nurses at all sites with the necessary personal protective equipment. It also called for more trained cleaning staff at shelters.

“They’re starting the process of thinning out the mats, now but they should have started that in January,” says Aaron.


Sites like Dixon Hall are not 24/7. Clients are not permitted on site until 5 pm and they have to be out by 7:30 in the morning. “People are wandering around for shelter and food,” says Aaron. “Many of them have pre-existing conditions, they can’t practise proper hygiene because all the washrooms and everything else are closed. It’s hard at the best of times but now it’s impossible. For health and safety reasons they need facilities 24/7, and hot meals.”

Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the Toronto Board of Health, announced this week that the city has opened nine new shelters with more than 350 spaces to improve physical distancing. Cressy told media that an isolation site for homeless people waiting for COVID-19 test results is opening and that a 400-person recovery site available through direct referral is in the works. As of this week, two shelter clients have tested positive for COVID-19.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe reports that procuring personal protective equipment, or PPE, for shelter staff remains a challenge. Crowe confirms that the isolation site is now open but was told by SSHA management the recovery site for those who are experiencing symptoms is not expected to be open until later this week “because PPE is not available.” 

“There are pressure points right across all systems,” says Susan Bender, who manages the Toronto Drop-In Network. “Drop-ins have received people discharged from hospitals direct to drop-ins. Drop-ins are not a home. It just speaks to long-term overcapacity and under-resourcing of the system, and now in this crisis time, we’re seeing an incredibly frightening impact of that. I do know that everyone is working 24/7 at the city and there is no lack of effort on this. But I think with a historic lack of action around housing and homelessness, food security and poverty, we’re now coming face to face with what that looks like during a health crisis.”


Nicky, a 39-year-old homeless woman is staying at a respite centre with her partner. She admits having alcoholic issues and was relieved when the province declared LCBOs and Beer Stores essential businesses and will remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was worried about everything closing because if I do go through withdrawal and I have to go to a hospital then I’m being exposed to more chance of getting this virus.” She says that the COVID-19 protocols at the respite where she’s staying have been varied.

“It can be inconsistent, yes, but this place also has been there for me and the staff here is great and they’re doing what they can. They don’t want to see us out on the street, they want to see us safe, but at the same time, they’re not all aware of what the rules are, especially now. Maybe they need to have a meeting because it’s different from staff to staff.”

She says that over the past weeks as the pandemic has spread, staff have begun moving beds to other locations in the building to deal with social distancing.

“But there’s still so much coming and going, people can still come and go and you don’t know where they’ve been,” says Nicky, who was never screened at the respite site but did get screened at Sanctuary.

“We started screening clients for COVID-19 last week,” says Cook. “We have a clinic and nurses on staff, and all the staff have been trained. We bought a bunch of those ear thermometers (thermometers) so we take everybody’s temperature. If it’s over 38 they can’t come in.”

Cook says that, “As the week went on we had to let fewer and fewer people in, trying to make sure that we actually had space for social distancing. It’s complicated. Two weeks ago people had Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, drop-ins to use the bathroom or they could access it at the library. All those options are gone now.”

“You have this impossible situation,” says OCAP organizer Yogi Acharya, “where people have nowhere to go are expected to follow public health measures they are not afforded the chance to follow.” 

OCAP, the Shelter and Housing Justice Network and other advocates first asked the city for a COVID-19 plan on March 4. But advocates say city officials didn’t want to create a panic and so very cautious about adding new space and communicating to staff plans in the event of community transmission of the virus. 

Acharya says one of the major obstacles to ensuring the safety of the homeless population was poor communication.

On March 18, the city closed down its Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre on Peter Street, leaving no clues about how to access services. Homeless people could still call in but many don’t have phones and need to access the 24-hour central intake facility in person for referral and TTC tokens to get them there.

Acharya says both the pace and scale at which the city is moving to increase shelter, respite and drop-in centre spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19 are dangerously inadequate.

“What’s crucial is that announcing money is one thing and implementing measures is another, and it’s the implementation that we need. How fast is it going to happen?”


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