Isolation centre for unhoused people with COVID-19 nearly full as Omicron moves through shelters

As 34 homeless shelters grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks, an isolation centre for unhoused people with the virus is 95 per cent full and that means the facility will accept only complex cases.

Strain on Toronto hotel that serves as isolation centre comes as 34 homeless shelters in outbreak

Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men, is enduring its seventh outbreak of COVID-19, according to data collected by homeless advocates. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

As 34 homeless shelters grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks, an isolation centre for unhoused people with the virus is 95 per cent full and that means the facility will accept only complex cases.

City officials have directed shelter staff to develop plans that will enable unhoused people infected with the virus to isolate "in situ," which means remaining in place at the shelters in which they are staying. 

Homeless advocates say people who try to access a bed at the isolation and recovery centre are not having any luck and they are urging the city to enlist outside help, including from the federal government, to manage the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in shelters.

They say the city needs to create space in the isolation centre. And they say they believe the shelter system may be collapsing because of worker burnout, staff shortages and the recent number of deaths in the shelter system.

A senior city official, however, rejected the idea of outside help, saying the city is managing the situation. He added that the shelter system is functioning.

"We don't need any help, currently," Gord Tanner, general manager of the city's Shelter Support and Housing Administration division, told CBC's The National.

"Listen, these are challenging times for all of us in communities right across Canada. And certainly, the impact for vulnerable people, including people who are homeless, has been significant. But we are prepared and we have contingency plans in place, as I say, to deploy staff should they be needed, from across city departments in Toronto, to ensure that these essential services continue."

Tanner said the city runs the largest shelter system in Canada, providing shelter to about 7,200 people a night in 101 shelters.

"People are working around the clock to ensure that people experiencing homelessness in Toronto have the support they need and a safe place indoors that is warm," he said.

The Maxwell Meighen Centre, a downtown Toronto shelter funded by the city of Toronto and operated by the Salvation Army, is pictured here on Feb. 23, 2021. The shelter is one of 34 currently in outbreak in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As for the isolation centre itself, Tanner said: "Our isolation and recovery site here is a place where people who are COVID-positive can go and receive the support of some enhanced health services. And it is a very busy place as you can imagine right now with the Omicron variant. People are coming in and discharged from that program on a daily basis so there is constant churn." 

Though Tanner rejected the need for outside help, he did acknowledge that "the ability to keep isolation space for the number of people who may be impacted from this variant is very challenging."

Isolation centre has 60 rooms for unhoused people

According to city data, the city's isolation centre is at 95 per cent capacity. The city said there are about 60 rooms at the centre for unhoused people who test positive for COVID-19.

Currently, however, the city says the centre can only accept complex cases, including people with "more significant vulnerabilities" and harm reduction needs.

Tanner said the city is doing everything it can to curb spread of the novel coronavirus in its shelter system: "We are in touch with all of our shelter operators on a daily basis and ensuring they've got the supports they need in terms of personal protective equipment and supports around infection prevention and control."

Tanner said the city is working closely with Toronto Public Health and community health organizations as it tries to bring case numbers down. 

As of Friday at 8:30 a.m., the city's dashboard of pandemic data shows there are 34 outbreaks at emergency shelters, with 214 cases and one person hospitalized. Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men, is enduring its seventh outbreak, according to data collected by advocates.

Lack of isolation space 'alarming,' street nurse says

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said the lack of available space at the isolation centre is "alarming." The network includes homeless advocates, shelter providers, health care professionals, legal workers, faith leaders and researchers, all of whom are focused on homelessness. 

"Now essentially, unless you are direly ill, you don't get into that recovery hotel," Crowe said.

"The shelters have been directed by the city to keep you in place. If you have COVID right now, it doesn't matter. You're stuck in the shelter and somehow they are trying to create a space for you to be isolated in, which is totally impossible unless you're in a shelter which has single rooms and which is extremely rare.

"It's really, really alarming, given what we know about the spread. People who are not infected are left like sitting ducks."

Crowe said the situation means unhoused people with COVID-19 must feel extremely uncomfortable as they try to recover.

"Imagine if you are homeless and you have COVID-19 and you're stuck in a shelter. You might be sleeping on a cot. And it's not like you have a family member there to look after you, someone to make you chamomile tea, or to get you extra juice, or to cook you scrambled eggs when you get your appetite back. It's the basics of assembly line meals. And there's no medicine cupboard. It's a very rare shelter that has nursing staff on site. It's a nightmare," she said.

Street Nurse Cathy Crowe says: 'Now essentially, unless you are direly ill, you don't get into that recovery hotel.' (CBC)

Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the city was not prepared to deal with the onslaught of cases generated by the Omicron variant. Sanctuary is an organization that works with poor and homeless people to provide them with support in reintegrating with the community.

"I would argue that the city has been slow to respond and was planning for the best case scenario," Cook said. "I think the main point is that the city needs to ask for federal relief."

Cook said the city is reserving space at the isolation centre for the most severe cases and the result is: "People don't have options."

In a weekend statement, the city acknowledged that the centre is nearly full: "There is a high demand for the program, however spaces become available on a daily basis as people are discharged. Individuals who test positive from a congregate shelter setting (non-hotel) will continue to be prioritized for admission for isolation."

The city said the isolation centre originally could accommodate up to 154 people, but the city has reduced the amount of designated space for isolation and recovery and has begun using floors of the hotel to include shelter space for unhoused people.

Homeless shelters feel the strain of COVID-19 amid Omicron outbreaks

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
Homeless shelters across Canada are feeling the strain of COVID-19 as outbreaks of the Omicron variant bring to light growing concerns around resident safety.

With files from CBC's The National