COVID-19 highlights decades of failure to help homeless, but is also a chance for change, says advocate
Homeless people at risk of COVID-19 ‘deserve the same protections as anybody else’
The COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare longstanding failures to protect the health and wellbeing of homeless Canadians, according to one doctor and advocate.
"We've known about the perils of homelessness and not having housing, not being able to attain health without housing, for decades," said Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of health and social policy at Toronto's University Health Network.
"These are the conditions that we have imposed on people, and these are the health outcomes with major gaps that we have accepted," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"And what COVID-19 is doing is blowing the top off our ability to ignore this anymore."
On Monday, more than 300 doctors and health-care workers who wrote an open letter to municipal and provincial leaders in Ontario, called for immediate help for homeless people in the pandemic — a call that Boozary said he supports.
They letter warned of "preventable deaths and outbreaks with broad public health implications."
As of Tuesday, officials said at least 30 people using homeless and refugee shelters in Toronto have tested positive for COVID-19.
The city is in the process of moving people currently in shelters to hotels it has bought or leased, but Boozary said there needs to be a longer-term plan for housing.
"We've got to move towards safe solutions now to get people [into] isolation if they've tested positive, or if they're waiting for results," he told Galloway.
"These individuals experiencing this deserve the same protections as anybody else."
But he said there needs to be a collective effort to find more lasting answers, and reject "the same poor outcomes, when we hopefully get through this together."
"We can't go back to homelessness … [or] to accept a discriminatory policy against people living in poverty."
'Crisis upon a crisis upon a crisis'
In Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the pandemic is adding to what was already a "crisis upon a crisis upon a crisis," said Jeremy Hunka, a spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission.
The organization provides meals, shelter and outreach to people dealing with homelessness, poverty and addiction, but Hunka said more and more people are seeking help due to pandemic-related layoffs.
Homeless people are also dealing with the emotional toll of worrying about the virus, and limited options to protect themselve, he said.
"People who are on the street have nowhere to go. They are literally in the public all the time; they're at risk 100 per cent of the time."
Hunka said his organization has adapted to meet the challenges of COVID-19.
They've closed their dining hall and now offer meals to go, while at the same time ramping up the number of servings they offer to make up for other services that have been forced to close.
The shelter beds they offer have been spread out to accommodate social distancing.
Staff have access to some personal protective equipment, but that comes with a downside given the people they help are used to being ignored or treated coldly, Hunka said.
"We want to serve them with love and dignity, but it would take a little more effort to do that when you're wearing a face mask and a face shield," he said.
Authorities in B.C. are also leasing hotels to provide space for homeless people at risk, but while Hunka welcomed the measures, he worries they're "not rolling out fast enough.
"The need is still far greater than the response," he said.
COVID-19 an 'acute stressor'
It's not a coincidence that COVID-19 is hitting disadvantaged people hardest, Boozary said.
"Whether it's in long-term care homes, whether it's in shelters, whether it's individuals who are racialized and working in low-paid jobs and underpaid jobs — these are the decisions that … have exposed people to risk chronically," he said.
"And now COVID-19 is adding that acute stressor."
He wants those issues to be considered as Canada works its way back from the pandemic, particularly around the decision of when to end physical distancing and restart the economy.
There are fears that trying to get people back to work too soon — for economic reasons — could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases and risk lives.
"We are going to be judged by how we protect the most vulnerable coming through this crisis and through this pandemic," Boozary said.
"And if we make myopic decisions on the economy, I think it's something that we all have to wear."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Caro Rolando and Anne Penman.
- An earlier version of this story misidentified Dr. Andrew Boozary as a signatory of an open letter calling for more support for homeless people affected by the pandemic in Ontario.Apr 15, 2020 4:59 PM ET