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Can't Afford to Physically Distance: COVID-19 & Toronto's Homelessness Population

Days either fly by and blend into two, or melancholically seem to drag on forever. As we struggle to figure out what to do with ourselves and how to keep safe, it’s no doubt that many of us are feeling lost, scared, or a variety of perplexing emotions all at once. For someone like me, keeping busy is incredibly important in order to avoid the blues that can be caused by not being socially connected or having the freedom to do what I usually do for hobby, work or leisure. Many of us are not used to being confined to our houses majority of the time, and this could put stress on finances, mental health, relationships, health, etc. On the other hand, others may be enjoying it, or it isn’t too far from the lifestyle may already be living. At the end of the day, it is evident that humans are beings that crave connection with others so it can also be a very lonely time for some.

"What day is it again?"

"How much longer will we have to avoid socializing and public gatherings?"

"What do I do today?"

Above are all questions you may be asking yourselves, as the global COVID-19 pandemic has likely shaped your life in more negative ways than positive. However, while we may sit here disgruntled over mere boredom or the ambiguity of the future, many of us still have a house we can reside in during lock down or social isolation. On the contrary, many others lack the shelter and safety that is assumed by many of these social isolating policies implemented by the Canadian government. With that being said, individuals experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the virus as they lack the first thing that is expected by society in order to socially distance - a safe place to stay. Let’s look at the current crisis of COVID-19 through the lens of someone who may currently be experiencing homelessness. As we have mentioned previously, homelessness can happen to anyone, especially now with homes along with living expenses now costing about 120% of one’s income. Hopefully this can shine some light on how many individuals are at a higher risk during this pandemic.

First off, many respite and drop-in centres have been forced to close due to provincial requirements, so many individuals have been forced to reside outside which is no way a fixed environment. Most of the shelters in the GTA are operating at near full capacity at all times (98% occupancy rate every night in Toronto according to the Fred Victor Organization). The truth is social distancing is not a realistic possibility in these settings. Furthermore, seniors also account for about 10% of the homeless population in Toronto alone, and many individuals experiencing homelessness lack basic needs. In addition, many public spaces for food and bathrooms have also been shut down leaving many unable to wash their hands or access other food because 50% of food banks have also shut down due to COVID-19.

"They can't even go to the washroom. They cannot wash their hands even if they wanted to comply with the government's guidelines,” said Gaetan Heroux with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. There have been portable toilets put out across the city, but by no means is this is the best way to remedy the issue.

It may not exactly feel like it at the moment, but having a permanent home you not only feel safe in, but can use as shelter whenever you need to is definitely a huge privilege. Due to the rising social issue of homelessness in the GTA and the overcrowding of many shelters, drop-in or respite services, there could be mass outbreaks of COVID-19 within these service agencies. In fact, 135 in Toronto’s shelters system have already tested positive for the virus and this population isn’t even receiving the same amount of testing or care in hospital settings as other high-risk populations. According to Global News, there has already been two instances where COVID-positive homeless patients were not deemed suitable of requiring hospitalization after being admitted.

As a province, we have seen immense changes and services made accessible to Canadians during the pandemic, but what is currently being done for the homeless population? According to an article by Global News, the Canadian government has provided an additional 200 million “in social services relief funding aimed at protecting vulnerable people from COVID-19” but “didn’t address calls for regional coordination on the shelter system, aside from updated guidelines to minimize transmission among those experiencing homelessness”. In addition, a new self-isolation centre that can shelter 40 individuals was put in order in Toronto but I was unable to see if this centre is now accessible.

It is perfectly fine to not feel mentally well at the moment, as this is a hard time for all of us. As mentioned previously, humans crave connection or structure and we are being deprived of that at the moment. However, it is also important to recognize the other high risk populations during the COVID-19 pandemic that aren’t being portrayed or discussed as often in the media – the ones who continue to fall through the cracks of the social safety net. In the article titled "Tuesday in Allan Gardens, Where the Police Guard the Benches" author Kat Eschner discusses the conflict between the police and homeless individuals over the use of park benches. Issuing tickets to those who do not scurry away quick enough when they pass through. When speaking to an officer in the park, he admitted that there was nowhere for them to go, but he must do his job and enforce the bylaw. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been a notable increase of police presence in areas such as Allen Gardens and Moss Park which many people experiencing homelessness are known to congregate. Issuing tickets to people that can not afford to pay them does nothing to support individuals already at high risk of contracting the virus.

The City of Toronto has made some efforts to find alternative housing for people and opened up hotel rooms and open spaces after advocates demanded something must be done. The city said in a statement it had opened 11 new facilities and secured more than 1,200 hotel rooms for homeless people. About 770 people had moved into hotel rooms, with 492 people moved to community spaces as of April 25th. Still a coalition of homelessness advocacy groups is suing the city for their response to the pandemic. Their claim, many shelters in the city fail to offer two metres of distance between users. This violates parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“It’s taken a pandemic to open peoples’ eyes to the stark reality Toronto’s homeless face every day, but even more-so right now,” said Kimberly Curry from the Seeds of Hope Foundation.

During these dark times, let us not forget about what we are thankful for as well as try to remember we are connected despite the physical separation. We are all threads to the fabric of humanity and experiencing COVID-19 at a global level. Although we are each having a singular experience with it, perhaps it would be a good time to reflect on many things, such as how our system can best support all of its population. Our aim shouldn't be for life as it was before COVID-19, this pandemic highlighted many existing flaws in how we support vulnerable populations in our city. We need to ensure that the system that evolves from this pandemic is inclusive and supportive for everyone.

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