Claim: The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing, and that is why the City is focused on investing significant public funding on these services.

FACT: The claim, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that the safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness is inside is dubious.

More than 660 cases of COVID-19 have been reported inside the shelter system during the pandemic,1 while less than five cases have been identified in encampments through widespread testing.2 

Research has demonstrated that COVID-19 risk is highest in indoor congregate settings where droplet and airborne transmission becomes a significant threat; the level of risk is increased with the more time a person spends in such a setting, the more people it contains, and the lower the quality of its ventilation.3 

Places that used to be considered safe for people like restaurants, churches, hospitals, and long-term care homes, are now sites with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission.4 Yet, the City hasn’t updated its view of risks associated with the shelter system. As many as 2,874 spaces in the shelter system are currently congregate settings, many with shared bathrooms and eating areas.5

FACT: The City of Toronto has withheld basic services from people living in encampments; these services would increase people’s safety.

Scott McKean, Manager of Community Safety and Wellbeing Planning, Social Development Finance and Administration with the City of Toronto, gave sworn testimony that: 

City staff have identified opportunities to have dedicated staffing and infrastructure within encampment sites, including suggestions by community partners. At this time, the City has prioritized creating access to safer spaces inside… rather than building infrastructure into encampments. Building infrastructure in encampments would require spending scarce resources in parks and risk encouraging larger encampments.6

FACT: It was only in October 2020, seven months into the pandemic, that the City of Toronto lifted a prohibition on the distribution of survival supplies for all agencies receiving City funding. It took over two years from the issuance of the Coroner’s Jury Recommendations in the Inquest into the death of Grant Faulkner for this ban to be lifted.7 This prohibition was instituted  when Streets to Homes was put in place in 2005.8

FACT: The City provides no data or analysis of the dangers associated with various housing or shelter options, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and overdose crisis. 

People face many threats to their safety including contracting COVID-19, exposure to the elements including freezing to death), physical violence/assault, contracting other diseases, theft, sexual assault, overdosing, fire, and trauma.9 The level of risk related to each of these threats can increase or decrease depending on the specific shelter/housing situation. Often people become homeless because their housing situation has become unsafe.10 In some cases, it is the City itself that is responsible for the threat and has the capacity to lessen it.11 The Premier of Ontario recognizes that some people report not wanting to stay in shelters because “some people get beat-up, their stuff gets stolen.”12 The City needs to update its outdated understanding of safety in accordance with current data about the actual safety risks that people experiencing homelessness are facing and apply it to reducing those risks and making shelter and housing options safer.

Notes:

City claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.

  1. City of Toronto. (2020). Active COVID-19 Outbreaks in Toronto Shelters, December 2, 2020.
  2. Harper, L. (November 23, 2020). National Housing Day Press Conference, Shelter & Housing Justice Network, Toronto; Lena, S. (September 30, 2020). Over the last six months, I’ve tested more than 1,000 people for Covid in hospitals, shelters and homeless encampments. Toronto Life.
  3. Ahlawat, A., Wiedensohler, A., & Mishra, S. K. (2020). An Overview on the Role of Relative Humidity in Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Indoor Environments. Aerosol and Air Quality Research, 20(9), 1856–1861; Boisvert, N. ( December 2, 2020). Shared dorms in Toronto shelters put users at risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission, critics warn. CBC News; CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (October 28, 2020). How Coronavirus Spreads. Editorial: COVID-19 transmission—up in the air. (2020). The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 8(12), 1159. Hamner, L., Dubbel, P., Capron, I., Ross, A., Jordan, A., Lee, J., Lynn, J., Ball, A., Narwal, S., Russell, S., Patrick, D., & Leibrand, H. (2020). High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice — Skagit County, Washington, March 2020. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(19), 606–610; Kohanski, M. A., Lo, L. J., & Waring, M. S. (2020). Review of indoor aerosol generation, transport, and control in the context of COVID‐19. International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology, 10(10), 1173–1179; Noorimotlagh, Z., Jaafarzadeh, N., Martínez, S. S., & Mirzaee, S. A. (2021). A systematic review of possible airborne transmission of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) in the indoor air environment. Environmental Research, 193(2021), 1–6; Morawska, L., & Milton, D. K. (2020). It Is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Clinical Infectious Diseases, 71(9); Liu, M., Maxwell, C. J., Armstrong, P., Schwandt, M., Moser, A., McGregor, M. J., Bronskill, S. E., & Dhalla, I. A. (2020). COVID-19 in long-term care homes in Ontario and British Columbia. CMAJ , 192(47), E1540–E1546; Carman, T. (2020, December 11). Coronavirus can travel farther and faster inside restaurants than previously thought, South Korean study suggests. The Philadelphia Inquirer; Dubinski, K. (2020, November 24). “Alarming” COVID-19 outbreaks spreading throughout University Hospital. CBC News. 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Boisvert, N. (December 2, 2020). Shared dorms in Toronto shelters put users at risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission, critics warn. CBC News.
  6. McKean, Scott. (2020) Affidavit. Motion Record – City of Toronto. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Para 18.
  7. Office of the Chief Coroner. (2018). OCC Inquest Faulkner 2018: Verdict of Coroner’s Jury.
  8. McQuaig, L. (2007, June 1). We allowed rich to win class war. Toronto Star; Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
  9. See, for e.g.: Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report; Deck, S. M., & Platt, P. A. (2015). Homelessness is traumatic: Abuse, victimization, and trauma histories of homeless men. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24(9), 1022–1043; Toronto Public Health. (2020). Deaths of People Experiencing Homelessness: January 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020.
  10. City of Toronto. (2018). Street needs assessment – 2018. Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report, p. 10.
  11. In addition to withholding services from encampments (n. 6-8 above), this threat comes in multiple forms, including through police violence, which 35% of homeless people reported experiencing. Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report 2007, p 55; O’Grady, B., Gaetz, S., & Buccieri, K. (2011). Can I see your ID? The policing of youth homelessness in Toronto. Justice for Children and Youth & Homeless Hub, p. 47-48.The City of Toronto, through its Toronto Community Housing Corporation, is also a large landlord which actively creates homelessness through evictions, see: Leon, S., & Iveniuk, J. (2020). Forced out: Evictions, race, and poverty in Toronto.
  12. Ford, D. (June 24, 2020). COVID-19 Press Conference.

For more on the Faulkner recommendations, the Encampment Support Network has made a short graphic guide.