Since the start of the pandemic, the City of Toronto has implemented a comprehensive response to COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness, which is focused on infection prevention, recovery and housing. The City continues to evolve its approach to respond to current conditions, to protect and prioritize people experiencing homelessness.

To keep people safe in the City’s shelter system, comprehensive measures have been implemented, including:

  • physical distancing and personal protective equipment
  • staff and resident screening and testing
  • vaccination clinics
  • financial assistance
  • housing

Learn more about the City’s shelter system and other homelessness services.

The City has implemented stringent IPAC measures, including enhanced cleaning protocols. All agencies receive support for enhanced IPAC measures, PPE, wage enhancements and increasing vaccine uptake ($6 million in 2020 and $3 million in 2021). Staff throughout the sector are kept up-to-date with current measures through online and in-person training, as well as frequent communication updates and regular sector-wide webinars.

Additional IPAC measures include:

  • conducting ongoing quality assurance site visits to all locations to confirm compliance with IPAC measures and provide direction for remediation, where required
  • issuing guidance for improvements to indoor air quality
  • investing in initiatives to improve ventilation, such as higher-quality HVAC filters or portable air filters
    • The City has also made an additional investment of $1.5 million to purchase 660 portable HEPA filters for 65 shelters
  • communicating regularly with homelessness sector partners to share the current status of the response and the latest guidance
  • engaging an IPAC expert who visits sites in the shelter system, provides additional guidance and facilitated in-person training and education that includes on-site environmental services staff
  • requiring every shelter to identify an IPAC lead to coordinate IPAC work and focus on continuous improvements
  • encouraging healthy habits such as hand washing and covering coughs or sneezing into an elbow or tissue

Read more about the City’s guidance for shelters.

Physical Distancing

The City issued a Toronto Shelter Directive confirming that all shelter sites are required to maintain physical distancing to meet current Ministry of Health guidance for shelter settings during the pandemic. All shelters in the Toronto shelter system meet these requirements.

This was accomplished by opening temporary shelter sites to create physical distancing in the shelter system and provide space for people to move indoors from encampments. There are currently 26 temporary COVID-19 shelter and 24-hour respite sites operating that provide more than 3,000 spaces. Learn more about temporary COVID-19 response sites.

To ensure City shelters stay safe, the City has provided guidance and support on maintaining physical distancing, including:

  • adding visual cues throughout buildings, including in common staff spaces to assist clients and staff in maintaining physical distancing
  • staggering the use of common areas and meal times or providing meals to rooms, where possible
  • ensuring physical distancing of at least 2-metres laterally between beds in order to meet City shelter standards, which are based on Ministry of Health guidance for congregate living settings during the pandemic

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In tandem with physical distancing measures, masking is a key part of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable illnesses. Requirements are outlined in the City of Toronto shelter directive, updated in January 2022.

Currently, the City is distributing more than 100,000 pieces of PPE for staff working in the homelessness sector each week, which includes N95 respirators. Staff are encouraged to wear N95 respirators for the duration of their shift. Staff who are working with clients who are confirmed or suspected to be COVID-19 positive must wear a N95 respirator.

Shelter residents are also required to wear medical masks in all indoor common areas of shelter and respite sites, including elevators, hallways, lobbies, laundry rooms and other shared facilities. While masks are not required in sleeping areas, showers or outdoor areas, physical distancing should be maintained.

All shelter sites have also been sent N95 respirators to provide to clients who would like to wear them. Supplies will be replenished on a 14-day schedule until the need subsides.

COVID-19 Screening

Screening and testing staff and residents ensures that COVID-19 is detected swiftly and outbreaks are mitigated in the Toronto shelter system. Staff are screened at the beginning of every shift; residents are screened daily and at shelter entrances.

Rapid Antigen and Mobile Testing in Shelters

Staff at all shelters, 24-hour respite sites and 24-hour women’s drop-in programs have received rapid antigen tests to support enhanced screening measures.

Sites can also order tests for client use through the Province of Ontario’s Provincial Rapid Antigen Screening Program. These rapid tests provide initial results within 15 minutes. Clients who screen positive are offered appropriate supports and safe isolation space.

On-site testing also continues to be an important part of addressing COVID-19 in Toronto’s shelter system. With leadership from Ontario Health Toronto Region, community health partners and Toronto Public Health, on-site testing continues to be implemented in shelter locations across the city where recommended by Toronto Public Health.

Shelter, Support and Housing Administration is working closely with Toronto Public Health and other health partners, including the Inner City Health Associates (ICHA), to manage COVID-19 cases in the shelter system, including outbreaks. Information on active outbreaks can be viewed at COVID-19: Active Outbreaks.

The City continues to operate an Isolation and Recovery Site to support people who test positive and require additional support during their isolation period. The program is run in partnership with ICHA, University Health Network, Parkdale Queen West and The Neighbourhood Group, and offers an integrated model of care that includes intensive clinical, harm reduction and peer and personal support. The program is pet- and family-friendly, and children/infants can remain with their parents on-site.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto Public Health has guided the homelessness sector on the creation of effective isolation plans to ensure shelter residents needing support have a place to safely isolate.

In the context of widespread Omicron transmission in the general community, in discussion with TPH, and when recommended, there will be cases where people impacted by COVID-19 will be asked to isolate on-site, also known as in-situ. Unique isolation plans will be developed with service providers should this occur to ensure they have the support needed to continue to operate in accordance with Ministry of Health guidelines for isolation and outbreaks in congregate living settings. A mobile harm reduction peer support team (known as MOVID) led by Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and The Neighbourhood Group will also provide support to individuals isolating during an outbreak.

Anyone requiring urgent medical care will be referred to a hospital.

Through partnerships with Inner City Health Associates, Ontario Health Teams, Indigenous Health Teams, Ontario Health Toronto, local hospitals, family doctors and community-based health care service providers, the City is providing COVID-19 vaccination clinics for people experiencing homelessness staying in the shelter system, accessing drop-ins and living in encampments, as well as for frontline shelter staff. We continue to work with our partners to efficiently administer first, second and third doses.

The City supports vaccine uptake in the shelter system by:

  • providing supports to homelessness service providers for vaccine outreach and clinic coordination
  • providing incentives and funding for incentives for people experiencing homelessness to attend a vaccine clinic
  • providing funding to the Toronto Shelter Network for the Campaign Vaccination Promotion in Toronto Shelters Project, which provides resources to help shelters encourage vaccination
  • funding a mobile peer vaccine ambassador program for people with lived experience of homelessness
  • working with the Toronto Shelter Network to:
    • launch an on-site peer champion program, made up of current and past clients who work to enhance vaccine confidence at shelters with low vaccination rates
    • host targeted information sessions for youth and families
  • working with the Toronto Shelter Network and the Black Physicians of Ontario to host Black client-centred vaccine clinics and vaccine webinars

Learn more about the City’s efforts to prioritize vaccinations for people experiencing homelessness below and in this news release from January 7, 2022.

Street Outreach

There has been an increase in the number and size of encampments as well as concerns about the safety and well-being of people living outdoors and the impact on the local community.

To respond to these concerns, the City and community partners have mobilized a COVID-19 response strategy for outreach in encampments that prioritizes health and safety, and remains committed to creating sufficient safe indoor spaces for Toronto residents experiencing homelessness.

Learn more about the City’s Encampment Outreach & Response or find out about how the City is making more affordable housing available.

Increasing Access to Safe, Indoor Space

The City invested $1 million to expand or re-open safe daytime indoor space for people experiencing homelessness in July 2021. This investment is expected to result in over 9,000 sq. ft. of net new indoor drop-in space, 150 net new operating hours and over 1,500 net new meals provided indoors.

The Daytime Drop-in Indoor Space Fund is a one-time fund to support existing daytime drop-in provider with small capital projects, operating funding or both. It was developed in collaboration with the Toronto Drop-in Network (TDIN) to ensure the needs of the sector and those they serve were addressed.

This funding responds to the need for increased access to safe daytime indoor space for people experiencing homelessness.

  • COVID-19 public health measures resulted in the loss of informal and formal indoor space typically accessed by people experiencing homelessness.
  • Many daytime drop-in service providers have had to limit access to indoor space due to physical distancing guidelines and have shifted their operations from sit-down meals and in-person appointments to takeaway food and alternative remote/virtual supports.
  • Some people visiting encampments are doing so for social reasons due the lack of accessible drop-in spaces and recreational activities in the community.

Toronto Rent Bank

The Toronto Rent Bank, a partnership between the City of Toronto and Neighbourhood Information Post, provides grants to eligible Toronto residents who are behind on their rent or need help with a rental deposit. By providing these grants, the Toronto Rent Bank ensures that people at risk have the support they need to stay in their homes and prevent homelessness.

The City has made significant program changes to the Toronto Rent Bank to respond to the needs of low-income households during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • investing an additional $5 million in the program
  • converting the Rent Bank program from a loan to a grant as a pilot until March 31, 2022
  • increasing the annual household income eligibility criteria and maximum allowable loan
  • freezing all loan repayments

In 2020, 1,062 households accessed loans of approximately $3.3 million. Another 1,717 households accessed loans and grants of approximately $5.1 million in 2021.

These program changes were described in a report to Economic and Community Development Committee in March 2021.

Learn more about the Toronto Rent Bank.

Rapid Rehousing Initiative

In 2020, SSHA launched the Rapid Rehousing Initiative. The initiative accelerates the movement of people experiencing homelessness who are on the Centralized Waiting List into vacant Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) units. It is a partnership with TCHC, the Furniture Bank and 20 City-funded community agencies providing follow-up housing stabilization supports to tenants.

As of the end of 2021, the Rapid Rehousing Initiative helped 961 people move into permanent and fully furnished housing with supports. Helping people move from the shelter system into stable housing, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the best option for people experiencing homelessness and also creates space in the shelter system. This work will continue throughout 2022. Learn more about the Rapid Rehousing Initiative.

The Rapid Rehousing Initiative and Toronto Rent Bank are programs that were created or enhanced to respond to COVID-19. The City has many other programs to help people access housing that continued throughout the pandemic. Learn more about the City’s housing supports.

For more information on how the City is supporting residents with housing through the COVID-19 pandemic, read COVID-19: Tenants & Property Owners or go to Financial Support for Renters.

In September 2020, City Council endorsed the Housing and People Action Plan and the COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy as the framework for prioritization of the City’s intergovernmental advocacy work on housing and homelessness over the next 24 months (2020 PH16.8) and to complement the City’s HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan.

In December 2020, City Council also requested support from other orders of government for the 24-month Housing and Homelessness Recovery Plan to create 3,000 permanent housing opportunities, including $48 million to provide 2,000 housing opportunities with supports (2020 PH19.11).

Learn more about new supportive housing developments.