Monday, July 13, 2020

COVID-19 and the Toronto to Homeless Population

With everyone forced to stay inside, what is the fate of the homeless, and those living in shelters or on the street?

Regent Park located just east of Toronto's downtown core is undergoing a major revitalization, it is being transformed from a neighbourhood made up solely of public housing, most of which were buildings over 50 years old, to a multi-use, mixed income community. Despite these changes, the areas surrounding Regent Park, which included Moss Park, Cabbage Town, St Jamestown, and the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, have had large populations of low income, homeless and street people. To meet the needs of these populations, the area also has the highest concentration of social service agencies, shelters and drop-ins.

It is estimated that there are over 9,200 people in Toronto who maybe homeless at any one time. Shelters and drop-ins provide essential services to these populations, food, clothing, medical and mental health supports, and places where people can socialize. However, over-crowding in shelters has been a consistent and long-time worry for many street and homeless people. In some cases certain people would prefer to sleep outside rather than face the uncertainties posed by having to spend the night in a shelter.

COVID-19 has most certainly disrupted every facet of our lives, but what has emerged from a closer scrutiny of the pandemic is that disproportionately people with fewer resources and the ability access government assistance have been hit the hardest. If circumstance were tuff before COVID-19, then the situation now is much, much worse. As David Raycraft, Director, Housing Services at Dixon Hall (a Toronto multi-service agency) put it; “right now we are faced with a situation where people are cheek to jowl in respite services and emergency shelter programs.” 

Maintaining the safety of both clients and staff has meant a complete overhaul of how an agency like Dixon Hall (Dixon Hall has a number of locations in and around the Regent Park area) must do its business. One thing is almost certain, that the present circumstances with regards to housing and the homeless population, is that the agencies tasked with providing support to this sector are not prepared to deal with a pandemic. In fact, the whole spectrum of emergency shelters, respite services, and drops-ins operates as a stopgap measure; attending to “immediate needs” while lacking the resources to implement the deeper and more long-term solutions, such as providing housing. As David once more articulates; “life would be much different if people were housed in supportive housing units, where medical support could be provided, and people could self-isolate more easily.”

And in the end, if there is to be a take-away from the present moment, it is that we need to be thinking about moving away from emergency shelters, respite services, and drops-ins, and think about transitional housing, supportive housing and equally affordable housing as a way of providing support to the most vulnerable members of society.

To hear the conversation with David Raycraft click here

by Dimitrije Martinovic
Dimitrije is a staff member of FOCUS MEDIA ARTS CENTRE.

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