The city said homeless people living in encampments are now being moved into 125 furnished units at two midtown apartment buildings as interim housing in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19..
Mayor John Tory made the announcement during Wednesday’s press briefing, noting the city had stopped clearing encampments during the initial stages of the pandemic, “but those encampments have grown.”
“They have begun to raise serious public health concerns about the risk of COVID-19 spreading in these large groups where there’s often no physical distancing,” said Tory.
The city has leased two mid-rise vacant apartment buildings from developer Times Group. The buildings had been slated for demolition. The units will be available until construction permits resume, for up to six months. The address isn’t being disclosed for privacy reasons, said city spokesman Kris Scheuer.
There are furniture, housewares and a kitchen in each self-contained unit and clients will have access to laundry, free Wi-Fi and cable TV. The building is accessible and pet-friendly. The city is paying the $55-per-day rental fee per unit with no cost to the homeless moving into these units. Clients will be provided with on-site supports including meals, 24/7 staff support, security and case management for long-term housing. Harm-reduction supports will also be provided, according to the city.
There will also be ongoing screening for COVID-19 symptoms among residents and enhanced cleaning for rooms and common spaces.
This is part of a strategy to open 23 new sites with more than 1,400 spaces for isolation, physical distancing, recovery and housing. As of April 30, 1,679 people have been relocated to hotels, community spaces and vacant apartments.
Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary, worries what will happen to the rest of the homeless once those 125 units — “a drop in the bucket” — are filled. He said, anecdotally, outreach groups say encampments have tripled since the pandemic. Many homeless people fear contracting the COVID-19 virus at jammed shelters.
The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention directed governments to not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19 unless into housing, because people will “disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
“Where are people going to go?” said Cook. “I don’t know why they’re lifting the moratorium on dismantling encampments. I’m really concerned.”
The city, however, said only those going into the housing units will have their encampment sites cleared.
“Outreach teams will continue to engage with clients at these sites after these encampment-clearing notices have been posted,” said Scheuer. “No other encampments will be cleared except where people have been offered indoor spaces such as through the interim housing program.”
Meanwhile, University-Rosedale resident Philip Smith counted the 36 tents in 11 city parks on Wednesday and complained to the mayor and local councillors that constituted as “illegal camping” under the Municipal Code.
“The presence of tents in parks is all the more alarming considering all amenities in parks are closed to the public due to COVID-19. So regular citizens cannot enjoy parks, but those in violation of city bylaws are given a pass,” Smith wrote. “There is a clear lack of any enforcement of the Municipal Code given that many of these camps have been in place for months.”
City staff confirmed no infraction tickets have been issued for illegal camping during the pandemic.