Toronto’s medical officer of health says she is concerned about the presence of COVID-19 variants of concern within the city’s homeless shelter system.
Dr. Eileen de Villa confirmed Wednesday that there is now more than one COVID-19 case involving a variant at a city shelter, but she did not provide details on which shelters have variants of concern or which variant is present in the shelters. She said there are a total of 56 confirmed variant of concern cases in Toronto.
“I do know that there are some screened positive variants of concern cases within the context of our shelters here in the city. And obviously, these are always concerning,” she said at a city hall briefing on Wednesday.
“Any congregate setting where you have a virus like COVID-19 and particularly a variant of COVID-19 that has demonstrated increased transmissibility is of concern.”
On Feb. 13, the city reported that there was one variant of concern at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, a shelter funded by the city but run by the Salvation Army on Sherbourne Street near Queen Street East.
De Villa’s comments come as the number of shelters in outbreak and the number of COVID-19 cases among shelter residents are on the rise in Toronto.
There are now seven shelters in outbreak, an increase from four a week ago. And there are now 115 COVID-19 cases among shelter residents and staff, an increase from 93 a week ago. The data was last updated on the city’s COVID-19: Status of Cases webpage on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Of these outbreaks, the shelter with the highest number of cases is Seaton House, the city’s largest shelter for men near Jarvis Street and Gerrard Street East. It has 47 active cases and one person in hospital.
One advocate says the increases in shelter outbreaks and case numbers are worrying.
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said there is a great need for accessible and affordable housing in the city.
Lam recently shot videos inside Union Station to show that benches used by people to sit and warm up were taken away or made off limits. She has also spent hours on the phone calling the city’s shelter intake system to look for places for clients to sleep.
“I’m incredibly concerned. We know that there is a rising number of cases in the shelter system,” Lam said.
“We know that the homeless population is five times more likely to die from the virus than the non-homeless population, so I’m super, super worried about what this means for our most vulnerable people,” she said.
2,000 more shelter hotel spaces needed, advocate says
Lam said she would like the city to provide at least 2,000 more shelter hotel spaces in the downtown core.
“We have been calling for this since the start of the pandemic. And the city has been slow to respond,” she said.
Lam said when there is space for unhoused people, it’s often in shelters, where there are rising numbers of cases. She said shelter hotels are now preferred as places to stay.
“People are looking for spaces where they feel supported, where it’s safe, where it’s dignified, so some of the downtown hotel shelter spaces that have opened up are really ideal for people, but they fill up so fast, in the blink of an eye,” she said.
“For right now, community centres are empty, office spaces are empty. All of those things can be opened up as temporary options for people to, at least, get to stay warm.”
City to open 2 new shelter hotels next week
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of the city’s shelter support and housing administration, told reporters at a city hall news briefing on Wednesday that two new shelter hotels are opening next week in Toronto to provide temporary housing for unhoused people.
Both shelter hotels are slated to start accepting clients on Feb. 22, the city said in an email on Wednesday. The shelters are the Novotel Toronto Centre, at 45 The Esplanade, and St. Simon’s Clubbe House, at 556 Sherbourne St.
The city is leasing 205 rooms at the Novotel and that number can increase to 254 rooms if required. Homes First will operate the hotel and it will accommodate singles and couples. The city has leased the hotel until December 2021 with the possibility of an extension.
St. Simon’s Clubbe House has room for 36 male and male-identified adults. St. Simon’s Shelter Inc. will operate the site. The city has leased the shelter for a year, with the possibility that it could be extended another year.
“Both locations are temporary shelters opening to help create physical distancing in the shelter system and provide space for people to move indoors from encampments,” Lyne Kyle, city spokesperson, said in an email on Wednesday.
In addition to outbreaks at the Maxwell Meighen Centre and Seaton House, there are outbreaks at Dixon Hall, Warden Woods Community Centre – Respite Services, a Salvation Army shelter, Inner City Health Associates Four Points Isolation Centre and Sojourn House.