Since the start of the pandemic, the City of Toronto has implemented a comprehensive response to COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness, which 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
  • recovery support
  • vaccination clinics
  • physical supports
  • financial assistance

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

The City has implemented stringent IPAC measures, including enhanced cleaning protocols and limited movement between shelters. 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 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
  • 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 more than 25 new temporary sites. There are approximately 2,600 spaces in new temporary shelters and hotel programs and they serve to both create physical distancing in the shelter system and provide space for people to move indoors from encampments. 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 in sleeping areas 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 February 2021.

All shelter staff and essential visitors are required to wear medical masks and eye protection in the workplace for the duration of their shifts or visits.

Shelter residents are also required to wear medical masks or three layer non-medical masks or face coverings in all indoor common areas of shelter and respite sites. Shelters provide a supply of masks or face coverings for residents’ use in common areas, 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.

Currently, the City is distributing more than 100,000 pieces of PPE for staff working in the homelessness sector each week.

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.

Mobile and Rapid Antigen Testing in Shelters

On-site testing 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. This includes on-site testing at sites with and without identified outbreaks.

In addition, the City has implemented a rapid antigen testing program at priority sites, including sites that offer spaces to people living outside and in encampments. These rapid tests provide initial results within 15 minutes. Residents who screen positive receive a follow-up laboratory test to confirm their results, and are offered appropriate supports and safe recovery space.

The City supports people who test positive for COVID-19 through an isolation and recovery program, in partnership with Inner City Health Associates, University Health Network, Parkdale Queen West and The Neighbourhood Group. Those admitted are housed individually in hotel rooms and are required to spend most of every day in isolation spaces to ensure the safety of other residents and staff.

The program focuses on people who are:

  • confirmed to be COVID-19 positive
  • symptomatic with pending or negative COVID-19 test results
  • close contacts of known COVID-19 cases

To mitigate the challenges of isolation, the program offers an integrated model of care using a harm reduction and trauma-oriented approach, offering medical care, nursing, substance use care and overdose prevention services, mental health support and community, peer and personal support.

The program is pet- and family-friendly, and children/infants can remain with their parents on-site.

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

Through partnerships with local hospitals, Ontario Health Teams, Local Health Integration Networks, Inner City Health Associates, 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 and second doses.

The City supports vaccine uptake in the shelter system by:

  • providing supports to homelessness service providers for vaccine outreach
  • providing incentives and funding for incentives for people experiencing homelessness to attend a vaccine clinic
  • supporting a peer vaccine ambassador program for people with lived experience of homelessness (For more information read the news release from April 12, 2021.)

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

TheĀ Toronto Rent Bank, a partnership between the City of Toronto andĀ 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 certain loan repayments

In 2020, due to the changes above, 1,062 households accessed loans of approximately $3.3 million.

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 accelerated the movement of people experiencing homelessness and on the Centralized Waiting List into vacant units in the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). It is a partnership with TCHC, the Furniture Bank and 20 City-funded community agencies
providing follow-up supports to tenants.

Phase one of the initiative helped 459 people move into permanent and fully furnished housing with supports. Phase two of the initiative continues in 2021. This initiative helped people move from the shelter system into stable housing during the pandemic, which is the best option for people experiencing homelessness and which created space in the shelter system. Learn more about the Rapid Rehousing Initiative.

The Rapid Rehousing Initiative and Toronto Rent Bank are programs that were created or changed 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.

The COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy identifies 12 priority actions for the next 12 months, including actions to invest in housing and supports to decrease the volume and duration of need for emergency shelter.

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 opportunity with supports (2020 PH19.11).

Learn more about new supportive housing developments.