Ontario to spend $255 million to address COVID 19 outbreaks in homeless shelters

TORONTO — Ontario will give municipalities and Indigenous communities $255 million to fight COVID-19 outbreaks in homeless shelters.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the money can be used to acquire motel and hotel spaces to support physical distancing, hire more shelter staff, and buy more personal protective equipment.

By John Ramspott via Wikimedia Commons

“In order to prevent further outbreaks, we need to act now,” Clark said Wednesday.

“This investment will save lives.”

The funds can also be used to purchase cleaning supplies and support rent and utility banks to keep people who are struggling financially from becoming homeless.

Toronto will receive $94.5 million of the funding to prevent outbreaks in its shelters.

Mayor John Tory said the funding will be added to the more than $663 million the city is spending this year to expand its shelter system and support its homeless residents.

The city has undergone a massive and oft-criticized effort to find housing for the homeless. About 3,200 people have been permanently housed over the past year.

When the pandemic hit last March, hundreds of homeless people fled the city’s shelters, most of which are congregate settings, due to fears of contracting the novel coronavirus. Many found refuge in burgeoning encampments in city parks.

The city said it has moved more than 1,300 people from 82 encampments inside.

Of the roughly 20,000 people who used Toronto’s homeless shelter system over the past year, 981 have contracted the virus, and seven have died with COVID-19.

One recent outbreak linked to a COVID-19 variant has ripped through the Maxwell Meighen Centre in downtown Toronto, infecting dozens of people.

As of Monday, 11 Toronto shelters are currently in outbreak with a total of 183 cases of COVID-19 reported. Fifty of those cases are at Maxwell Meighen and 51 are at Seaton House.

To date, 79 people in 12 centres linked to the shelter system have tested positive for a COVID-19 variant of concern, including two cases of the variant originally found in the United Kingdom.

The mayor of Kingston, Ont., a city dealing with a rise in number of homeless encampments, welcomed the province’s funding announcement.

Last summer, the city and several agencies launched an “integrated-care” space where people can sleep, eat and access a variety of services, including counselling, safe consumption, crisis support and access to a nurse.

Mayor Bryan Paterson said the city will receive $2.3 million from the latest funding.

“We’re exploring other options for shelters and supportive housing and so this funding will certainly help us to be able to do more in the months ahead because we’re still not on the other side of this,” he said.

Kingston is in the province’s green zone with only 20 active cases of COVID-19 – and none in the shelter system.

“Right now the situation is good – we just want to make sure it stays that way,” Paterson said.

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger also appreciated the injection of funds.

“The rise in unsheltered homelessness during the pandemic continues to highlight ongoing systemic health, social and economic inequities,” Eisenberger said in an email.

“We share the concern for our homeless population and will continue our work to provide good quality and stable housing to those who need it most.”

Clark said at the outset of the pandemic, the province asked all shelters to develop outbreak management plans and complete infection, prevention and control education.

The province has asked shelter managers to ensure those plans are updated now that variants of concern are on the rise in Ontario, he said.

Shelter-system residents in many municipalities are currently receiving their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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