While Torontonians city-wide are practising social distancing and self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s important to remember that the ability to social distance and self-isolate is a privilege. Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, reminded us all during her press conference on April 1 that individuals experiencing homelessness are one of groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 and that greater protections must be put in place.
“There are a number of other measures to help support social distancing efforts, physical distancing efforts and infection prevention and control in setting that homeless individuals use and reside in,” said Dr. de Villa.
She also said that the city can achieve this by working in partnership with the volunteer and not-for-profit sector. One of the not-for-profit organizations in the city that has boots on the ground helping individuals experiencing homelessness is Ve’ahavta.
“This particularly vulnerable population is not able to do things like stay at home or wash their hands to prevent illness and many individuals face difficulties in accessing healthcare in the best of times, so we are facing a perfect storm,” says Cari Kozierok, executive director of Ve’ahavta.
Kozierok explains that the shutdown of businesses has greatly impacted the homeless community. Areas that many of these individuals visit on a daily basis such as libraries, community centres, office tower food courts, and shopping malls are now closed.
“With libraries and community centres closed, they lack access to technology and Wi-Fi. With these amenities closed, we are hearing that simply finding a bathroom to use has become a daily challenge,” she says.
Ve’ahavta operates a mobile van service that visits areas in the city six nights a week from about 6 p.m. to midnight. The route covers St. Clair Avenue down to the Gardiner Expressway and between Church Street to Bathurst Street. The van provides food, hygiene supplies, clothing, sleeping bags, and harm reduction kits.
“Since the coronavirus outbreak, we have had to modify the program including additional safety precautions for clients and staff and suspending the volunteer roles,” says Kozierok. “Individuals are telling us when we arrive at 10 p.m. that the meal we are serving is the first food they have eaten that day. We have increased our meal production to allow for two to three meals per client in the form of sandwiches that can be eaten both at night and saved as additional meals for the next day.”
The streets of Toronto are essentially empty so panhandling is no longer an option to collect money to buy some food. Additionally, the closure of restaurants and coffee shops has removed a source of warm food and bathroom access for these individuals.
Dr. de Villa has expressed that greater protections are needed for those experiencing homelessness and Kozierok has some suggestions on how to achieve that.
“I think the reopening of community sites to enable drop-in and the addition of new shelter space and recovery space for shelter residents who become ill is an important move in the right direction,” she says.
She also notes that there are more than 500 individuals in Toronto who are considered rough sleepers, people who sleep outdoors and that the number seems to be growing during this pandemic.
“A quick drive down University Avenue reveals the number of tents housing rough sleepers that have cropped up over the past two weeks. These are people in need of the things that everyone needs — food, soap and water, a bathroom to use and a safe place to sleep. I would like to see bathroom facilities with portable hand washing stations set up in the city to provide for these most basic of needs,” says Kozierok.
Those looking to help while maintaining social distance and self-isolation protocols can donate funds to support Ve’ahavta’s outreach program on the organization’s website. For those looking to donate items, clothing such as men’s sweatpants and underwear are needed as well as food items like protein bars, energy drinks and cases of bottled water. Bins are located outside of Ve’ahavta’s head office at 200 Bridgeland Ave., Unit D in North York where you can drop off clothing items and non-perishable food. Remember only to leave your home for essential trips, so plan to drop off items on your way home from a visit to the grocery store.
For more information on how to make a donation, head to veahavta.org/covid-19-crisis-fund.