Toronto’s shelter system is currently experiencing multiple COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the city’s COVID-19 data.
Shelters where outbreaks are currently happening include Covenant house on Gerrard Street, Turning Point Youth Services on Wellesley Street and Na-Me-Res on Vaughan Road.
“What we do in those situations is that we of course cancel any new admissions to those particular shelters. We are, at this time, asking those individuals in those shelters to isolate in situ, so they will stay in those shelters,” said Brad Ross, chief communications officer with the City of Toronto.
“We have mobile peer-support teams for harm reduction, for example, so people in the shelters have that support that need and the medical support that they need.”
With the threat of Omicron, outreach worker Lorraine Lam said people who are experiencing homelessness are scared and frustrated.
“People are feeling frustrated. This feels like it’s been going on for so long and this community is constantly left behind in terms of safety precautions and actionable items that the city can do to take preventative measures to protect,” she said.
“It’s a scary time.”
Lam said with colder weather arriving, many of those experiencing homeless say they feel conflicted on where to go.
“The fear is, do I want to go inside to a congregate setting where we know that Omicron is so infectious … and risk getting COVID or do I stay outside where I know it’s safer but it’s freezing out,” she said, adding there is a need for more rapid testing, PPE and recovery space for those who are ill with COVID-19.
“The option right now is stay (at) the shelter and isolate, but we know that’s not possible. So that needs to be something the city needs to do as well: open up more spaces and provide rapid testing and more PPE and vaccines to everybody.”
In October, The Shelter Housing Justice Network, which represents members of the homeless community and those who work with them, issued a report with recommendations that it said could help the city improve on past plans for the colder months.
The group wants the city to extend leases it holds on hotels that are used to house homeless individuals during the pandemic.
It also wants the city to allow those experiencing homelessness to camp in public spaces.
For Lam, she said she is most concerned about recovery sites for those who are sick with COVID-19.
“The recovery site, for me, is a big concern, that there is not enough capacity at the moment and I think if those things are not addressed quickly and soon, then we are going to see the numbers of COVID-19 within this community skyrocket,” she said.
On Thursday, Ontario reported the largest increase in cases since the start of the pandemic, with 5,790 new cases reported.
Ross said the city continues to monitor the situation.
“We do have a recovery site that still has capacity in it so should that change, I’m sure that shelter support and housing and Toronto Public Health will work together on what additional capacity maybe required,” he said.
The City of Toronto also issued a news release Thursday, where officials said they continue to prioritize infection prevention and control measures in shelters, as well as access to vaccinations for those experiencing homelessness.
The statement said each outbreak is assessed closely to determine the best course of action.
It noted that contingency plans are being put in place to allow staff to be redeployed to support essential shelter operations as needed and activate additional locations if capacity is lost due to outbreaks.
Officials said on-site testing is being implemented where recommended by Toronto Public Health.
Rapid antigen tests are available at priority sites and shelters are being encouraged to register with the province to access kits. Additional kits have been requested for staff use at shelter locations, officials said.
“The City is also continuing to open new shelter spaces through its 2021/2022 winter services plan, with 265 new spaces added to the shelter system since October,” the statement said.
“The City also continues to help those experiencing homelessness secure permanent housing with support to help with the transition.”
— With files from Ryan Rocca and The Canadian Press.