Today, the City Manager issued a report to City Council entitled, “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System.” The report outlines the unprecedented action the City of Toronto has taken to protect people experiencing homelessness from COVID-19 and to ensure the safety of the shelter system. As stated in the report, the City and its community partners will continue its commitment to reduce the risks of COVID-19 in the shelter system and work with the federal and provincial governments to secure investments in a range of affordable and supportive housing solutions.
The City continues to assist and protect people experiencing homelessness through COVID-19 vaccination, an increased focus on infection and prevention control (IPAC) measures in the shelter system, a pilot COVID-19 rapid testing program for new admissions and referring people to safer inside space with supports including meals, laundry, harm reduction and access to a housing worker.
The City has budgeted to spend $663.2 million on homelessness and Housing First services and supports in 2021, almost double the amount spent in 2019 at $365.8 million.
In the staff report, the City Manager’s recommendations include that staff continue to take appropriate steps to reduce risks of COVID-19 in the shelter system and all steps necessary to achieve a high rate of vaccination for people experiencing homelessness; to request the provincial government continue to prioritize vaccine supply for shelter clients and frontline staff, including expediting second doses for these vulnerable groups; to continue working with those living in encampments to offer safe indoor space; and to reiterate the City’s request to the federal and provincial governments to urgently provide one-time capital and ongoing operating funding to fully implement the 24-month Housing and Homelessness Recovery Plan by the end of 2022, including funding for the remaining 2,460 permanent housing opportunities, comprised of 1,460 supportive housing units and funding for 1,000 portable housing benefits.
As of May 28, approximately 7,500 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered to people experiencing homelessness and people who are precariously housed, as well as people working in the homelessness and housing sector through on-site clinics in shelters or mobile clinics in the community. As of May 28, 51 per cent of people 12 years and older staying in the City’s shelter system that week had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A group of Toronto Paramedics supported by the Sunnybrook Centre for Prehospital Medicine, Toronto Public Health and Toronto Fire Services are attending shelters, drop-ins and encampment sites to immunize people seven days a week. Teams have scheduled 33 clinics this week for shelter sites, shelter hotels, and drop-ins. The City also provided additional vaccination opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and frontline staff in the homelessness sector through dedicated centralized clinics on May 11 and 27.
The City continues to support healthcare partners and the Province in rolling out vaccinations to people experiencing homelessness and frontline workers in the homelessness sector. All shelter locations have now had at least one vaccine clinic offered on-site.
The City is committed to decreasing the risk of outbreaks in the shelter system and continues to provide enhanced supports to ensure immunization and IPAC measures – already established in these settings – are being followed and, where necessary, improved upon. Toronto Public Health has provided recommendations related to cleaning and disinfection and developed training modules that will be available to all shelter staff. The City has also engaged an external IPAC consultant and representatives are visiting sites in the shelter system, providing additional guidance, and is facilitating in-person training and education including on-site environmental services staff. Each shelter has identified an IPAC lead to coordinate IPAC work and to focus on continuous improvements as needed.
There has been a steady reduction in COVID-19 outbreaks over the last few weeks. As of June 2, there are eight confirmed outbreaks (with 85 associated cases) within the City’s shelter system.
The City is piloting a rapid antigen testing program at priority sites for new admissions, including sites that offer spaces to people living outside and in encampments. Rapid antigen testing, which provides a screening result within fifteen minutes, is another important step the City is taking to support and protect people in the shelter system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who screens positive will have a confirmatory laboratory test and be offered supports and safe isolation space.
There are more than 6,000 shelter spaces in the city today. As of June 3, there is capacity in the shelter system for people staying in encampments who accept offers of safe inside space. From April 2020 to April 2021, 5,518 people experiencing homelessness moved from the shelter system into permanent housing.
The City has helped more than 1,660 people staying in encampments move to safe inside space since the start of the pandemic, including 203 people in the past month.
Since July 2020, the City’s Streets to Homes and partner agency staff have engaged more than 19,000 times with people living outside, including those staying in encampments – listening to and understanding their needs on a daily basis with care and compassion, and offering them safe inside space with supports and referrals to permanent housing. To date in 2021, Parks Ambassadors made 619 referrals to Street to Homes for people experiencing homelessness in parks. Streets to Homes staff and Parks Ambassadors are not involved in enforcement activities or posting of notices.
As the staff report notes, encampments contravene several chapters of the Municipal Code and are not a solution to unsheltered homelessness. The health outcomes for people who stay outside are complex and serious. Individuals living in encampments are also at risk of contracting COVID-19. There have been 100 fires in encampments so far this year. Last week, Toronto Fire Services cleared 24 propane cylinders and other flammable and combustible materials, including gas cans, at a makeshift encampment near the Don Valley Parkway. In 2020, Toronto Fire Services responded to 253 fires in encampments – a 250 per cent increase over the same period in 2019.
The City’s response to encampments takes into consideration the health and well-being of those living outside and the broader community needs, including access to green space for safe outdoor recreation during the pandemic, and upcoming summer parks programming and permitting requirements including for summer camps. City parks must be ready, safe and accessible to all residents of Toronto. In particular, parks give residents living in apartment buildings or shared housing spaces a safe outdoor space to play and exercise.
The City has an interdivisional response to encampments that is being coordinated by the Office of Emergency Management. The City’s objective is to ensure that people experiencing homelessness feel comfortable accepting offers of safe inside space with supports and referrals to permanent housing, through efforts to immunize people experiencing homelessness, enhance IPAC measures in the shelter system and work with those living in encampments.
The City will enforce bylaws at encampments after exhausting all options to help people move from encampments to safer, indoor spaces. Space remains available for all those living in encampments in the City’s shelters and its hotel program.
Toronto is home to more than 2.9 million people whose diversity and experiences make this great city Canada’s leading economic engine and one of the world’s most diverse and livable cities. As the fourth largest city in North America, Toronto is a global leader in technology, finance, film, music, culture and innovation, and consistently places at the top of international rankings due to investments championed by its government, residents and businesses. For more information visit the City’s website or follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.