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Toronto’s Increasing Homeless Population is Among the Most Susceptible to the Impact of the COVID-19

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a state of emergency, and widespread social isolation, resulting in a mountain of economic challenge. However, though the problem stemmed before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Toronto continues to suffer from a housing crisis. According to RBC's 2019 Economic Research publication, housing affordability in Toronto remains at a crisis level (RBC Economic Research, 2019). Real estate reporter Tess Kalinowski noted in a recent article by the Toronto Star that, while housing prices are only up by only 3% in comparison to 50% the week before, they continue to trend up during this pandemic (Kalinowski, March 2020).

Toronto's lack of affordable housing has increased the city's homeless population, which has nearly doubled from 2006 to the last collected data in 2018 (Clapp, 2019). Before the viral outbreak, Toronto's homeless population exceeded 9,200 (City of Toronto, 2019). As of January 2020, The Toronto Homeless Memorial now lists more than 1,000 lives lost (Mathieu, 2020). These are just the cases that we know of. On top of a multitude of human rights issues related to homelessness in Toronto, January marked the second year of forced eviction of people living in certain Toronto encampments, further limiting available living space (Manek, February 2020). As human rights advocate Cathy Crowe says, housing security has been a widely discussed issue for working-class and low-income renters since changes in national housing policy throughout the late 1990s (Clapp, 2019). The 2017 Liberal national housing strategy neglects challenges faced by low-income renters while focusing almost primarily on social housing providers (Clapp, 2019). Despite the strategy’s focus on social housing, as well as a half-met 2009 goal of providing 12,800 affordable housing units by 2020 (Clapp, 2019), shelters were, on average, at 98% occupancy every night (City of Toronto, 2019). On top of limited shelter space, as well as unaffordable rent, the wait for subsidized housing in Ontario is 7 to 10 years, on a first-come, first-serve basis (Settlement.Org, January 2019).

The necessary precautionary measures are taken by the Canadian government, as well as numerous nations abroad, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including tactics of enforced self-isolation and quarantine. Rapid and strategic implementation omit preventative measures is crucial in such a viral pandemic, effective strategies at which the Canadian government has been successful and adamant in enforcing. Despite our effort in self-isolating within the comfort of our homes, the homeless population is neglected. Toronto's shelter system was already at capacity; the city closed its central intake centre to walk-in referrals at homeless shelters on March 19th in the promotion of social distancing (Pagliaro, March 2020). In-person services at the Peter Street site have closed as well. However, the phone line at the shelters remains open. Along with the closure of restaurants, many food banks in Toronto are struggling to remain open, limiting the homeless population's access to basic nutritional necessities (Monsebraaten, 2020).

​Joyce Rankin explains in an interview some of the problems that are affecting the homeless community amid this outbreak. Rankin is the Clinical Manager at Street Health, Toronto. Street Health is a multi-tiered non-for-profit organization that provides healthcare to homeless and low-income individuals, as many individuals facing these challenges avoid mainstream health services (Street Health, 2019). Street Health provides a nursing program, where RNs and Nurse Practitioners provide healthcare at scheduled clinics in drop-in centres and shelters. Additionally, the organization offers a harm reduction program, which addresses issues related to substance abuse, and ID safe program helps the population gain access to health cards, as well as conducts community research that pertains to advocacy on the issue.

What effects of this pandemic have you seen on work as a nurse whose job is heavily implicated with Toronto's homeless population, as well as the impact of the virus on the people that your organization supports?

"Rightly so, we are not supposed to have people congregating in large groups. Street Health has had to discontinue numerous services offered, such as ID community clinics, off-site community nursing clinics and all harm reduction drop-in programs. The fact that the drop-ins have closed, and that omit shelters are limiting space to create social distancing, the homeless community, who is already very vulnerable, is not able to access services. We already have a community that has difficulty accessing services, an issue that is, now, exponentially worse. The places for people to be, outside of the cold, are disappearing. They can't go to places like Tim Hortons or shopping centres anymore, due to closures, and have limited access to shelters. The only way for them to get into a shelter is if someone who has access to a phone refers them to a shelter in Toronto, which happens to have an opening, and ensures that they have transport to the location. Because of this, services like those at Street Health are even busier. We have been, even before the outbreak, using our resources to try and encourage the government to provide additional services to Toronto's homeless and low-income population. We had to close our external nursing clinics, as I can't send nurses to other areas, since need has become greater in our centers due to closed drop-ins. We do still have nursing services on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as have been working hard to keep our addiction prevention centres open. However, it is a very paired down service.

A lot of people are still coming in and working on the front lines if they can't work at home. We have people screening our intakes for any symptoms of the virus upon arrival. However, when you consider the early symptoms of the virus, such as a dry cough, fever or aches and pains – the bottom line is, a lot of the people that I work with are those with a dry cough because they have chronic health conditions. We have to ask them questions, such as whether or not their symptoms are new."

How do you respond to the impact on social services accessible to Toronto's homeless population in the wake of this pandemic?

"Clearly, from a public health perspective, it is right to not have people be assembling. The issue that this virus is highlighting is that there was no plan in place for the impact of a potential situation like this on the homeless community. We already have a homeless crisis. People do not have a place to stay. We are not just dealing with a housing crisis; we are also dealing with a poison crisis. People are overdosing and dying. Now, on top of that, we have this pandemic about which to worry. Our government was not prepared for the impact of a crisis, such as this, on our clients. It's a tough one because I do agree that the government made the right decision in promoting self-isolation and not having people congregate in crowded places. Still, now our clients have nowhere safe to be."

What are things that people can do right now to support Toronto's homeless population, as well as front-line workers, such as yourself, in the wake of this crisis?

"Not everybody has access to a ton of coins. Financial donations are always extremely beneficial, but I understand that money, especially in times such as these, is very scarce. If I am addressing a student population, the subject of monetary contributions becomes increasingly stingy. Since we have to keep isolated, what I would say to students is to volunteer your time after this pandemic. Start to think about ways that you can get implicated in social initiatives and opportunities in place to volunteer with Toronto's homeless community. Homelessness can happen to anybody. Many Canadians are one to two paychecks away from losing their housing. We have to always think about that. We have to begin to recognize the humanity in people. Not everybody has the political knowledge and power to rapidly change these systemic injustices present in our society that contribute to the crisis. If somebody asks you for a dollar, or to buy them food or coffee, do it if you can. Don't feel guilty if you can't. Smile at people and recognize their humanity, don't just ignore them. The most important thing that we can do to support others, especially an already marginalized, and, as presented in the wake of this virus, an overlooked portion of our community. Our population gets ignored all the time. They are already dealing with trauma, whatever the reasons are that they are homeless, outside of the fact that the housing crisis is so bad. Of course, number one for organizations such as ours is financial donations, as if we don't have donations, we don't open. Less than half of Street Health's funding comes from the provincial government. The rest is fundraising dollars and grants.

Nobody grows up wanting to be homeless. For example, we have a lot of issues with people who are indigenous, who have lost their whole culture, and lack resources, and in a lot of cases, don't even have clean water. One could go off on a tangent, but the bottom line is that this is not their fault, but a systemic injustice. There are so many contributing factors."

As students, we at Toronto French School do have a fundamental social obligation to stay isolated to prevent the spread of this virus, protecting ourselves, and most importantly, those around us. However, as highlighted in this article, and through the advice from healthcare worker Joyce Rankin, our community faces a longstanding homeless crisis, which is often overlooked. Only in the wake of such circumstances do we see the extent that this large group of people, through no fault of its own, is neglected. Give our resources, what can we do right now to help those in our community? If possible, consider financial donations to organizations that continue to provide support to those without access to shelter and vital resources. While self-isolation is necessary, if you do have to go outside, and you see someone who looks to require assistance, do your best to provide support; while following the proper safety measures, such as staying away the recommended social distance, try to buy the person food, as food resources are scarce in the current state of affairs. If you have access to a phone, try and help refer them to a shelter by calling a hotline. Unfortunately, the freedom to provide personal assistance with this issue is limited. Our city's government is currently struggling to provide sufficient support to the homeless population. What we can do as a community is to encourage our local government to take measures in providing better support for Toronto's homeless and low-income people, addressing the many highlighted social-economic crises that are plaguing Toronto, through advocacy and awareness.

Central Intake Hotline:




A List Of Some organizations that support vulnerable Torontonias amid COVID19:

Street Health

Covenant House Toronto

Daily Bread Food Bank

North York Harvest

Second Harvest

The Salvation Army Canada

Good Shepherd Ministries

Fred Victor

Eva's Initiative

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