Chair of Toronto board of health calls on Ontario to test all shelter residents and staff

A downtown city councillor is calling on the Ontario government to test all clients and staff in homeless shelters, respite sites and drop-ins as the number of COVID-19 cases in the facilities continues to climb.

Joe Cressy says province should also help to fund city's $200M homelessness and shelter response

Joe Cressy, who chairs the Toronto Board of Health and represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, has written a letter to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott that says testing of all shelter residents and staff is needed now. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

A downtown city councillor is calling on the Ontario government to test all clients and staff in homeless shelters, respite sites and drop-ins as the number of COVID-19 cases in the facilities continues to climb.

Joe Cressy, who chairs the Toronto Board of Health and who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York, has written a letter to Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, saying testing is needed now.

Two shelter residents have already died of COVID-19 in hospital, seven shelters are experiencing outbreaks and 301 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19.

"We know that the province needs to ramp up proactive testing in all congregate living sites to protect clients and staff, including shelters, respites and drop-ins," Cressy said in the letter.

"We also know that we need to invest in supportive and affordable housing solutions in order to truly tackle chronic homelessness."

At a virtual meeting last week, the Board of Health unanimously approved a request to the province for what it calls "proactive testing." The provincial government is responsible for, oversees and determines criteria for testing in Ontario.

Cressy noted that as of Tuesday, the city has moved 1,160 people experiencing homelessness into 12 hotels, moved nearly 100 people sleeping outdoors to interim housing, provided isolation spaces and medical support to more than 150 people awaiting test results and provided support to 170 in hotel recovery sites.

He said the city also permanently housed 670 people through what it calls rapid rehousing, housing allowances and rent-geared-to-income programs.

The city's emergency homelessness and shelter response is costing the city $200 million and Cressy said the provincial government should help to fund it. The impact of COVID-19 means the city is facing a budget shortfall this year, he said.

Toronto's ability to generate revenue is limited and municipalities cannot run deficits, he said.

"The city can't do it alone — we need our provincial partner at the table," he said.

Ontario plans to expand testing of people with symptoms

In response to the letter, the Ontario government said it plans to increase testing of people in shared living spaces.

"Now that active surveillance testing of residents and staff in long-term care homes is nearly complete, we are expanding testing in other shared living spaces, including retirement homes, homeless shelters and other group homes and institutions," Hayley Chazan, spokesperson for Ontario's health minister, said in an email on Saturday. 

"It's important to note that residents and staff living and working in homeless shelters have always been priority groups for testing, especially in the case of an outbreak. While continuing to prioritize vulnerable groups, as we open the economy, Ontario's new testing guidelines will also allow for expanded testing of those with symptoms."

Chazan said the government has allocated $100 million in additional funding for public health units across the province to help them with COVID-19 monitoring, enhanced contact tracing and testing. 

As for Toronto itself, the province has provided $39,240,200 to the city to help it and its social service providers, such as shelters, food banks and emergency services, continue to deliver services, hire more staff and keep residents safe, she said.

"We're grateful for the tireless work of our front-line and municipal partners and will continue to stand behind them as we respond collectively to the COVID-19 outbreak," Chazan said.

8 homeless people in hospital with COVID-19

According to Toronto Public Health, as of Thursday at 4 p.m., eight people are in hospital suffering from COVID-19.

Of the 301 people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for the virus, 180 of them are at the Willowdale Welcome Centre, a shelter for refugees run by Homes First Society in North York.

A total of 32 people have tested positive for the virus at Seaton House. A man in his 70s who stayed at Seaton House died of COVID-19 on May 11.

A 52-year-old man, Joseph Chibala, was the first person in the city's shelter system to die of COVID-19. He died in hospital on May 8.

Thirty-two people at Seaton House have tested positive for COVID-19. One of its residents, a man in his 70s, has died of the virus. (City of Toronto)

Request follows city clearing of encampments downtown

The request to the province comes after a standoff on Friday between people experiencing homelessness, their advocates, city officials and Toronto police at two encampments downtown.

The city said it cleared encampments at the intersections of Lake Shore Boulevard West and Bay Street and Lake Shore Boulevard East and Sherbourne Street on Friday.

Police, city workers and heavy machinery took down tents that the city says were abandoned after it moved several people into housing last week.

The city said the camps were cleared after it offered various types of housing to the people living there.

Those who refused the city's offer of inside housing would have their tents removed, Mary-Anne Bedard, Toronto's general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, said on Friday.

"We have made a commitment not to clear a site without offering everyone a placement, but we're not always able to offer everyone a placement of their choice," Bedard said.

City officials, police officers and heavy machinery moved in on Friday to dismantle encampments under a downtown Toronto highway where homeless people live. There was a standoff before the tents came down. (Paul Smith/CBC)

According to Alex Burke, spokesperson for the city, advance notice is given before encampments are dismantled.

"All people living at an encampment are offered a combination of safer inside spaces including shelter, respite, hotels and interim housing before any encampment site is cleared. Sites will not be cleared if everyone at the location has not been offered an indoor space," Burke said in an email on Saturday.  

"In that case, city staff will seek to clean the site to allow for increased health and safety of those staying there and the surrounding community."

As of May 15, the city said it has helped 97 people move from encampments to inside spaces. 

Next week, from Wednesday to Saturday, the city said it will help more than 60 people move from encampments to shelters, respite sites, hotels and interim housing.

Encampments have popped up throughout the city during the pandemic as more shelter users take to the streets. The city had instituted a moratorium on clearing out encampments during the pandemic, but began clearing them out a few weeks ago.

Fires reported at 55 encampments this year

At a daily news briefing at city hall on Friday, Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg said there are major hazards at some of these encampments.

Toronto Fire Services has responded to 55 fires at encampments this year, including 15 in the last two weeks. One man died at a fire at an encampment two weeks ago.

The city's emergency homelessness and shelter response includes:

  • Securing personal protective equipment for city-run shelters. 
  • Opening 27 temporary response sites, including 13 hotel locations with 1,200 rooms.
  • Moving more than 2,600 people to temporary housing.
  • Opening recovery sites with health supports. 
  • Launching an interim housing program to get people off the street and into a vacant apartment building.
  • Installing eight portable toilet and hand washing stations. 
  • Opening of 11 locations with showers, washrooms, and drinking water for homeless people.

With files from The Canadian Press