ARTICLE: Governments urged to move fast on housing the homeless ahead of anticipated second wave of COVID-19

Angela Robertson, Executive Director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre was interviewed for an article in the Toronto Star. The full article can be found below:

Written by: Donovan Vincent

The three levels of government must “flip the switch” and quickly create new housing for homeless people in Toronto ahead of an anticipated second wave of COVID-19, says the executive director of a community health centre in the city.

Angela Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West community health centre and a co-lead on the Toronto region COVID-19 homelessness/shelter working group, says the governments must quickly transition to a short-term strategy for housing the homeless. That strategy should include reinvesting in new affordable housing construction, turning existing vacant buildings into affordable units and putting money into creating new rooming houses and supportive units.

“We have seen what political will and commitment can do in the immediate short term to respond to the challenges that COVID brought to our communities, to the economy,” Robertson says, referring, for example, to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provides temporary income to those who lost work during the pandemic.

“I may be in opposition to others who are still thinking of housing as a long-term strategy, but the pandemic has identified that housing is the most responsive remedy — a medicine for homeless, unsheltered folks who are affected by COVID-19,” Robertson says.

As co-lead of the COVID-19 homelessness working group Robertson is working with fellow co-leads Dr. Andrew Boozary, the University Health Network’s executive director of health and social policy, and Dr. Andrew Bond, medical director of Inner City Health Associates.


Among a host of initiatives, the working group — which includes physicians and nurses, from the health-care sector, along with managers and staff from dozens of community-based groups in Toronto — was formed in the spring to reimagine the support services and systems that are needed to assist homeless and unsheltered people, both during and after COVID.

The working group, funded through Ontario’s Ministry of Health, is also implementing a health and harm reduction strategy aimed at bringing a range of supports, including mobile coronavirus testing, to the homeless wherever they’re located — in the new hotel space created by the city to ensure physical distancing, traditional shelters, drop-in centres or encampments homeless people have set up under bridges, parks or beside roadways in the city.

Two new COVID-19 recovery sites in Toronto were recently set up in hotels as places where homeless people with COVID-19 can be treated and recover, and staffed with support from the working group. For instance, Robertson’s community health centre is involved in co-ordinating the provision of staff from a host of Toronto agencies who offer client support and harm reduction workers in the recovery sites.

The City of Toronto’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration is also involved with the sites where about 900 people have been cared for, says Boozary from UHN.

Boozary says the second wave of the coronavirus, predicted to begin sometime this fall, is a “statistical certainty,” according to epidemiologists, and with that comes “certain risks for further waves of homelessness on the horizon” in Toronto.

“Housing has to be a priority when we’re dealing with this virus,” he says.

“The rate of homelessness before COVID-19 was unacceptable. We were wilfully blind, and we can’t afford to go back to that,” Boozary adds.

Based on the city’s 2018 Street Needs Assessment, a “census” of the city’s homeless population, it’s estimated there were 8,715 people experiencing homelessness on the day the assessment was conducted, April 26, 2018.

The estimate included homeless individuals outdoors, in city-run shelters and 24-hour respite sites (including 24-hour women’s drop-in centres and the overnight Out of the Cold program), in shelters for women fleeing violence, health and treatment centres and correctional facilities.

“As we brace for a second wave of the virus, we need lasting housing solutions,” Boozary adds.

Robertson says it’s time to “flip the switch” in terms of the provision of housing resources that have been promised by the federal government and province, resources that will help reduce homelessness.

“I think what it means in tangible terms, lest we forget, in the late 1990s and early 2000, in this province, the then-Conservative government downloaded social housing to the city, without the appropriate funding to maintain or replenish and increase housing stock.

“They thought the private sector would step in and develop housing that would then make affordable housing miraculously appear. But what we have seen instead is an affordable housing crisis,” Robertson says.

In the near term, Robertson’s housing strategy envisions varied approaches.

Ontario had a strong co-op housing sector that was a model for bringing affordable housing to working people. This approach should be revisited, she says.

Additional supportive housing units need to be established for people with substance abuse and mental-health challenges, she adds.

New rent subsidies should also be brought forward to support people when affordable units are brought on-stream, Robertson suggests.

“And we still need to look at investments in mixed housing like rooming houses, where we know that has been a viable option for many who have transitioned out of street homelessness. That is a model that I think can and should still have support extended to it,” Robertson says, adding there are existing structures in Toronto that can be converted into this type of housing.

Given the anticipated second COVID wave in the fall, Robertson believes all levels of government need to move on a housing plan in the next six to 12 months.

“We have gotten stuck in being told there is no money. And those of us who administer … we get stuck there and begin to believe that. We have seen that homelessness is not an inevitable condition we need to live with just because we keep being told there is no money,” Robertson adds.

Among several announcements, the City of Toronto had previously stated it plans to increase investments by $3 billion, mostly to support the creation of 20,000 new affordable rental and supportive housing units.