TORONTO – COVID-19 could soon “explode” within Toronto’s homeless population as government actions to curb the spread of the illness have the opposite effect on those who live without housing, advocates and front-line workers say.
People who work with the city’s homeless say more are on the streets because many drop-in and respite sites have closed, while others must limit their numbers inside. Meanwhile, clients cannot practise safe social distancing inside those sites, nor can they easily go the bathroom or wash their hands because many food banks, restaurants and coffee shops have shut.
“If anything, the attempt to social-distance the general population is worsening the situation for people experiencing homelessness,” said Dr. Rikita Goel, a family physician who works with people experiencing homelessness.
“We’re putting people’s health at further risk.”
Downtown Toronto, where many of the services for the homeless exist, is barren. With coffee shops and restaurants largely closed, grocery stores have become the main source of food, said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto.
But panhandling, an often necessary source of cash for many on the streets, has dried up, Cook said, making shopping at grocery stores more difficult. Furthermore, many retailers are refusing to accept cash due to fears of spreading the novel coronavirus, he said.
“The support system for the homeless has just collapsed,” Cook said.
The effect has put more people out on the street looking for help, according to said Gaetan Heroux with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
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“Right now, we have hundreds and hundreds who are just wandering the streets and they can’t even access their most basic needs,” Heroux said.
“They can’t even go to the washroom. They cannot wash their hands even if they wanted to comply with the government’s guidelines.”
The closure of the city’s libraries has also hit the community hard, he said.
The city has recently taken some steps to address chronic overcrowding in its shelters, opening up eight new facilities with space for 350 people to help allow for social distancing.
The city announced the second positive case in the shelter system on Tuesday, but said there is no link between the two.
Advocates say drastic measures need to be taken to help the nearly 7,000 people who use the shelters every day.
“The overcrowding in terms of this virus is a death trap,” Heroux said.
“They need to get people out of those shelters in this climate. There are empty hotel beds, and lots of space out there, from the convention centres to the hockey arena.”
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