By Janica Maya
As COVID-19 continues to affect our lives, people experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable to the virus. Homelessness is a greater issue in Toronto, being almost 9,200 people who are homeless in the city on any given night. These people do not have the means of acquiring stable, permanent, safe and appropriate housing.
The city implementing the rule to self-isolate and physical distance is difficult to follow for those living on the streets and in crowded shelters, where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus. Practicing physical distancing and self-isolation in these cases is difficult, as more people are on the streets due to certain services and facilities being shut down. For example, drop-in centres, also utilized by at-risk youths, put them more at jeopardy of transmitting the virus. Cutting out resources and services for vulnerable youths and homeless people are also at risk for other issues to arise.
According to Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse, the homeless population is particularly vulnerable because of theirunderlying conditions, such as mental health problems, addiction issues and chronic and lung problems. Many of them have a pre-existing and chronic health condition that weakens their immune system, and puts them at risk to the virus. Other health conditions are also a risk for this group, due to not having access to the right resources and care at the moment. Crowe says: “It's a crisis that has been in the making for decades. Had we dealt with our homelessness crisis, maybe we wouldn't be here today.”
The city is taking precautionary steps to address the overcrowding in shelters, by opening up new facilities, bringing at least 350 extra spaces. These facilities include hotels, motels and vacant residential buildings to develop for more access to physical distancing for individuals from the shelters, 24-hour drop-ins and 24-hour respites. Toronto is strengthening its response on preventing COVID-19 after advocates suggested the city needs to take drastic measures to assist those living in shelters. Mary Anne Bedford, General Manager of Shelter of Support and Housing Administration, asserts that medical staff and shelter staff will be on-site in the new facilities and will provide food, laundry and cleaning services. The city has also set up an isolation centre at a former shelter in the East end for homeless individuals with symptoms who await their test results.
The homeless community is at greater risk of COVID-19 due to the overpopulated shelters and service shutdowns, that prevent them from practicing physical distancing and self-isolation. The city is taking actions to tackle the spread of the virus within shelters and across the city.