Toronto officials are urging the province to come up with a coordinated plan for shelters during the coronavirus pandemic, after two recent incidents involving regional hospitals and people experiencing homelessness.
The head of Toronto’s Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration told Global News about two cases involving regional hospitals.
Mary-Ann Bedard wouldn’t name the regional hospitals, but in one case she said a facility demanded Toronto pick up a COVID-positive homeless patient whose symptoms it deemed didn’t require a hospital bed.
“This particular hospital indicated that we needed to come pick him up, or they would discharge because his medical needs were not great enough for hospitalization,” said Bedard.
She said the city had to send transport to the region out of worry the man would simply be discharged onto the street.
In another case, Bedard said a regional hospital paid a cab to drive a man experiencing homelessness to Toronto’s shelter intake centre at 1 a.m.
“The thing that really mystifies me is the lack of coordination,” Bedard said. “Simply putting someone in a cab at one o’clock in the morning and hoping that they arrive safely and that they are given shelter, I think is not collaboration.”
During its pandemic response, Toronto has created additional physical distancing room in the shelter system by expanding into other city buildings. Hotel rooms have also been acquired to move vulnerable individuals out of crowded shelter, along with isolation space for homeless individuals waiting for COVID-19 test results.
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The city has also been repeatedly criticized by advocates and health professionals for moving people out of crowded shelters far too slowly. At least 30 people within the city’s shelter system have tested positive for the disease.
Bedard said the lack of a regional plan has made the city’s job much more difficult to manage.
In addition to other municipalities sending people to Toronto, Bedard said those discharged from provincially-run locations like jails, detention centres and social programs are creating a surge in demand for city shelter space.
Bedard said women fleeing violence are also being forced to turn to Toronto’s support network.
“This is a shelter program that’s actually run by the province,” she said.
With no space for physical distancing in those programs, Bedard said women are instead being referred to Toronto shelters.
“We’re trying to come up with solutions for women in very difficult situations, but it is falling to the municipal government as opposed to the provincial one,” she said.
Coun. Joe Cressy, the chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, is echoing Bedard’s call for provincial coordination.
“No one level of government can solve homelessness or address the COVID-19 homelessness emergency on its own,” he said.
Cressy said if all levels of government don’t work together, they will collectively fail on the issue.
Cressy said the province needs to create a detailed regional plan to ensure there is mass testing in existing shelters, while coordinating isolation and recovery sites for those who test positive for the disease.
Cressy added it’s also necessary to plan for housing outside of the short-term response, to prepare for the next wave of COVID-19.
“While the city can and should always do more, we have a provincial government that is not nearly doing enough.
“If the province doesn’t send in the cavalry today to help us address homelessness, we’re going to have mass outbreaks tomorrow,” Cressy said.
Global News asked the Ford government if it was preparing a pandemic response to address homelessness and when details of a plan could be forthcoming.
A statement from Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark’s director of communications said the Ontario government has provided an additional $200 million in social services relief funding aimed at protecting vulnerable people from COVID-19.
The statement didn’t address calls for regional coordination on the shelter system, aside from updated guidelines to minimize transmission among those experiencing homelessness. It also said prioritized testing for those in shelters, will help identify and contain cases of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations.