'We’ve failed on housing': Addressing homelessness an urgent priority amid COVID-19, U of T experts say

homeless people set up tents in moss park
(photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The pandemic is a frightening time for those who are experiencing homelessness, advocates say – but it may also present a rare opportunity to address the issue. 

While Canadians may have become numb to the sight of 35,000 people on the streets, COVID-19 has laid bare the public health implications of homelessness in cities across the country and provided an opening to secure emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness who have contracted the virus.

“COVID has impacted homeless populations and revealed a depth of crisis that has pushed all of us to develop a sustainable system,” says Angela Robertson, executive director of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. “The kind of system that has been talked about for a number of years is now happening.”

In March, Robertson began working with Andrew Boozary, of the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, and Andrew Bond, a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine who is the medical director of Inner City Health Associates. Together, they are co-leads of the Toronto region’s COVID-19 homelessness response, which initially established spaces for the city’s homeless to isolate and recover if they or a close contact tested positive for the coronavirus.

Organizers were able to provide a hotel room for each person or family in Etobicoke and downtown Toronto. At the height of the outbreak, more than 1,000 people were receiving on-site access to an interdisciplinary model of health and social care in four buildings. Staff ensured that everyone had a primary care provider by the time they left the recovery centres.

“There were people in tears at having their own bed,” says Boozary, who is executive director of population health and social medicine at the University Health Network, where he works as a physician. “That’s how much we’ve failed on housing.”

“The most pressing anxiety for folks wasn’t COVID but housing,” agrees Robertson. “For many people, this was the first time in years they had a room of their own, washroom facilities and a bed that was yours today and would be yours tomorrow.”

So far, more than 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto have been tested for COVID-19 – over half the estimated homeless population – and 1,000 have qualified for a room in a recovery centre.

Although lower income and racialized people are at far higher risk, the virus has demonstrated how everyone is interconnected – a reality Boozary says has been increasingly obscured amid growing income inequality. As an example, Boozary points to the high-rise Toronto neighborhood of St. James Town, where he grew up. It’s almost directly across the street from the leafy mansions of Rosedale, but the two areas remained worlds apart.

There is now, however, a growing awareness of COVID-19’s stubborn persistence in low-income neighborhoods, where people have fewer options.

“We’ve seen how anyone can get COVID if you don’t have the structural protection,” he says. “But we’ve made a choice as a society as to who’s afforded those protections. This is mired in a history of racist and discriminatory public policy. The latest COVID data show racialized people making up 83 per cent of all Toronto cases – it is a cruel exposer of long-standing inequalities.”

With a flattening of the curve, the city’s recovery centres have been reduced to one. But Boozary and Robertson fear even more families may be on the streets come the fall, where they will once again be at higher risk for COVID.

“We are staring at potentially one of the largest waves of homelessness given the unprecedented socio-economic fallout of COVID,” says Boozary. “We can continue to try for interim solutions. But to really get through this pandemic and to deliver on housing as a human right – as well as the most effective treatment through this pandemic – we need to convert these investments into lasting solutions.”

“Given the decades of life lost to homelessness, it’s amazing that a virus is exposing how important housing is. Housing is really the soundest economic choice and the option that protects human dignity. Anything else will fall short.”

Dalla Lana