Tory says city working on better housing options as 13 more test positive for COVID-19 variants in shelter system

Chris Bell, who has been on the streets for the past 24 years, looks out of the window of a temporary apartment he is housed in by the City of Toronto with the help of The Sanctuary, a respite centre he has been attending for the last 20 years, on April 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

As more people test positive for variants of concern in the city’s shelter system, Mayor John Tory says the city is doing its best to create more affordable housing options for those experiencing homelessness.

Toronto Public Health said Tuesday evening that 13 more people have tested positive for variants of concern in Toronto’s shelter system. The update comes just a day after the city announced that 29 people have tested positive for variants of concern at a Moss Park shelter run by the Salvation Army and funded by the city.

Further testing is currently underway to determine which variant each person has and the city said it is stepping up measures to try and strengthen infection-prevention measures in the shelter system. The city said those strengthened measures include eye protection for shelter staff and three-layer masks for clients, limiting movement between shelters, exploring implementation of rapid testing pilots, guidance for improvements to indoor air quality, and continued planning for an eventual vaccination roll-out.  

Speaking with CP24 on The Mayor Tuesday night, Tory said the city recognizes that those experiencing homelessness are in a difficult position and that better housing options are the best solution.

“We're doing our very best,” Tory said. “What we're doing that is I think the most important of all, is at a record pace – it's still not fast enough, but it's a record pace compared to any time previously in the history of the city – we're putting in place new housing developments, including supportive housing. Two new ones announced today, they'll be ready for occupancy in six months.”

The city’s homeless population has faced a number of difficult challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelter system has been strained to capacity and has experienced a number of outbreaks, despite infection prevention measures. At the same time a growing number of people have started living in encampments, which in turn have seen a rise in fires, some of them deadly.

Shelter hotels set up by the city have added space in the system, but have sparked complaints from residents in some neighbourhoods who say they are concerned about safety.

The latest shelter hotel opened this week at 45 The Esplanade, sparking complaints from some in the area. Responding Tuesday evening, Tory said he has a responsibility to keep neighbourhoods safe, but also to keep the city’s most vulnerable residents safe as well and that the job needs to be spread across the city.

“Yes, it's absolutely of paramount importance that I make sure all neighborhoods remain safe and I'm trying my best at that, but I also have a very important responsibility to make sure some of our most vulnerable citizens – often people with mental illness or substance abuse issues in their lives (are looked after).

“These are good people, you know, they're decent people. They're not, you know, bad people; They're just homeless, and they're often suffering from other issues in their lives. And it is our responsibility as a city and mine as mayor to make sure they're looked after.”

Tory pointed out that while there was strong opposition to shelter hotels in the midtown area last year, "things have settled down a lot there" with the proper supports in place.

He said there are “very encouraging discussions” taking place with the provincial and federal governments to try and create better housing options for those experiencing homelessness.

“All the governments are working hard to say we're not going to have people in encampments or in hotels, we're going to have them in a home with the supports they need, especially if they have mental illness or substance abuse problems, which a lot of them do,” Tory said. “And we need to support them and get them back on their feet and treat them in that kind of humane way that Torontonians would expect.”

According to the latest data available from the city, nine Toronto shelters are currently experiencing an active COVID-19 outbreak, with 151 active cases reported among them as of Feb. 23.