Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Providers Against Poverty surveyed staff at 22 shelters, respites, and drop-ins between March 29 and April 6, 2020 to determine the impact of the lack of urgent governmental support to adequately protect those experiencing homelessness in Toronto and those who care for them. We found that a catastrophic and widespread outbreak of COVID-19 across the shelter system is inevitable unless action is taken immediately.
The five main issues that came up across sites were:
- Shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- All sites are low on PPE and some have none
- Inadequate space for physical distancing or self-isolation
- Only two shelters reported keeping beds 6 feet apart, multiple shelters have beds 2 feet apart, and some are still using bunk beds
- Staffing shortages
- Most services running at reduced staff capacity, as staff have been required to self-isolate
- There is a risk of services shutting down as more workers test positive
- Screening issues
- Front-line staff conducting screening without PPE
- Some shelters are not able to do adequate screening
- No way to practice prevention strategies
- There is very limited living options for individuals to adequately physically distance before contracting COVID-19 as the current emergency shelters created for COVID-19 are only supporting those being tested or confirmed positive
- Hand washing is a key preventative measure in this pandemic, because of shutdown of drop-ins and community centres there is a lack of access to clean water
We demand that the Ministry of Health, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Toronto Medical Officer of Health take the following actions to prevent a humanitarian disaster:
- Order the opening of hotels, housing units, and student residence rooms NOW to house the 7000+ people experiencing homelessness in order to voluntarily and safely practice physical distancing.
- Immediately provide appropriate PPE and education on its use to front-line workers and symptomatic clients in drop-ins, shelters, and respites.
- Implement a robust overdose prevention strategy with safe witnessed consumption spaces at the sites and scaling up of Safe Opioid Supply programs.
- Partner with community agencies to safely transition people into housing and provide ongoing support.
- Provide outreach COVID screening and testing at shelters, hotels, respites, and drop-ins.
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Toronto Star Exclusive by Jennifer Pagliaro – Widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in Toronto’s shelters ‘inevitable’ without proper equipment, distancing, says advocacy group