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Toronto shelter system on the verge of collapse due to cold, COVID-19 and staff shortage

Toronto’s shelter system is at “boiling point”, advocates say, and is on the verge of collapse.

While the city is working to expand its capacity and provide shelter residents with better personal protective equipment (PPE) as cases increase, concerns remain about the need to do more – and soon.

As the extremely cold weather this week increased the needs, COVID-19 infections continued to reduce the number of available staff. This convergence of challenges has led to dropped calls over reception phone lines at shelters and the lack of bandwidth to provide appropriate care to some infected residents, advocates told The Star.

Occupation of the shelters was full or most of the week, during which temperatures plummeted to dangerous and deadly depths. Indoors, infections have spread – shelters were ordered last week to keep infected residents in place as isolation sites were out of space.

As Toronto shelters grapple with 359 COVID-19 cases and 48 active outbreaks on Thursday, the city announced it will distribute more than 310,000 N95 masks to shelter residents, a 14-day supply, according to a press release – something that advocates had spent weeks fighting for.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Cathy Crowe, nurse and activist. “The discrimination was too obvious, they had to do something. You cannot give workers N95s and not host clients. “

Crowe said whenever she and other advocates have approached the town to ask for N95s to be issued to residents of the shelters – a call that began with the rise of Omicron and an increased need for best masks – they were turned down and didn’t offer much explanation.

The hope is that this will reduce epidemics amid “signs of collapse and chaos” in the shelter system, Crowe said.

“I am in contact with a man staying in a shelter with an outbreak of around 30 cases,” she said. “He’s got COVID-19 for the second time. In some cases, services that should normally come in, such as health care, fail to do so during an epidemic. “

This is concerning because shelter staff typically do not have the training to deal with the illness that COVID-19 can cause on their own.

“Shelter workers have no training in nursing support,” she said. “It’s just awful. Each shelter should have a (licensed practical nurse) or health worker inside. If you just had flu-like symptoms and were in a shelter, that would be hell. There is no one to watch you, even every three hours. There is nobody.”

Toronto shelter resident Jacqueline Hillier told The Star she had to self-isolate for four days after testing positive for COVID-19, during which time she said she endured long waits for the use of water and toilets.

“After my boyfriend and I were isolated, no one came to see us for 18 hours,” she said. “I had to use a plastic bag to urinate. Nobody came. I didn’t drink any water until the next day.

Outbreaks can sometimes lead shelters not to accept new referrals, Crowe said, further stifling capacity.

To that end, the city announced Thursday that it will increase the capacity of the shelters by converting two community centers into emergency shelters.

The press release did not say how many beds it would open, and a city spokesperson told The Star on Thursday that this information would be released once the new sites are ready to open.

“It’s worrying,” said AJ Withers, housing advocate and adjunct professor at York University. “They opened new sites that were only for 12 people before. It’s not a lot.

If there were a significant number of new open spaces, it would be an important first step in dealing with the current crisis in the shelter system, Withers said.

Getting people out of the cold so they don’t die or lose their fingers and toes is paramount right now. Ultimately, “however, Toronto’s homeless population needs more non-collective, one-room, isolation-possible settings to avoid epidemics,” Withers said.

But the good that the opening of new sites could do could be compromised by the shelter system’s understaffing. Withers said people trying to secure places in shelters have recently encountered great difficulties, increasingly finding their calls to the reception lines unanswered.

“Opening a site is somewhat irrelevant if you can’t even know if you can go there,” Withers said. “A lot of people have experienced what is called ‘courtesy hang-ups’ when they call. And consistently, people spend too much time on hold. In between, people can’t even tell if there is a shelter space.

“It’s a somewhat useless first step if it is completely inaccessible.

Ben Cohen is a Toronto reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn