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Letter to Minister Elliott and Minister Clark regarding supporting homeless populations in COVID-19 response

Dear Minister Elliott and Minister Clark,

It’s been over two weeks since Ontario’s government declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has only intensified in the days since. We write to you on behalf of community-led organizations who are deeply concerned about marginalized groups in our province facing a dire situation. We are especially concerned about people experiencing homeless and the precariously housed.

The outlook for many in Ontario is bleak. Thousands were experiencing homeless or precariously housed before COVID-19. Thousands more have lost jobs, financial security and housing as the crisis escalates. In the coming weeks many more will lose the already tenuous foot hold they have on housing The United Nations says “housing is the front line defense against the COVID-19 outbreak.” We cannot wait; we urgently need action reducing homelessness and housing precarity now.

Ontario now has several confirmed COVID-19 cases in people who are homeless or precariously housed. It is virtually impossible for people without stable housing to practice public health recommendations such as physical distancing and isolation to contain COVID-19. The same is true for individuals who are precariously housed. The direct correlate to limited affordable housing and financial stress is overcrowding. People living in these circumstances cannot practice recommended mitigation measures.

Providers in shelters, drop-ins and out of the cold programs have continued to see thousands throughout the duration of the crisis, despite serious under-resourcing. Many lack essential materials, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for front facing workers. In some cases, community-led health organizations have supported providers by sharing PPE and filling service gaps. Across the province service providers are responding in any way they can and working with their municipalities to ensure access to portable care stations. In some regions community led organizations have responded to the crisis facing homeless populations by advocating for people to be accommodated in empty hotels and vacated student housing. Many are still waiting for this housing to become available. In some regions, organizations are independently putting unhoused people up in hotels.

Community-led organizations have responded heroically, but this is not enough. Confusion abounds as healthcare organizations and municipalities have different expectations and needs for under-housed populations. We thank you for the guidance document released for homeless shelters on March 31st. However, Responses across regions are too varied and are unsupported by provincial directives and coordination. Ontario needs a standardized, coordinated strategy to support people experiencing homelessness and housing. Our communities urgently need coordinated action from the province, across sectors and across jurisdictions.

Leaders in this sector have already laid out strategies informed by on the ground experience to contain the pandemic. Solutions are available to the province, we urge you to immediately implement these strategies:

  • Immediately implement recommendations for action at the provincial level put forward by Canadian Network for the Health and Housing of people Experiencing Homelessness (CNH3), including immediately striking a task force on COVID-19 and Homelessness. This task force must develop practicable guidance for the homelessness services sector which will be disseminated and implemented across the province. In collaboration with Public Health, this task force must inform outbreak coordination management and pandemic response for people experiencing homeless or precariously housed.
  • The province has advised Ontarians to brace for a response to COVID-19 that will last months. People cannot be housed in temporary shelters, with inadequate sanitation facilities and limited options for practicing physical distancing and isolation. COVID-19 has highlighted Ontario’s housing crisis; we need a permanent solution to the housing crisis now.
  • Designate shelters, drop-ins and warming centres as essential services and immediately prioritize access to PPE for service providers working in these facilities. These services must be supported in providing critical health interventions to highly marginalized populations.
  • Urgently act to provide income supports and rental relief to low income people across the province who will not qualify for relief funds announced under the Ontario Action Plan. Without intervention the risk of displacement, housing loss and food insecurity increases. We will not contain COVID-19 without addressing financial and social vulnerabilities.

People experiencing homelessness and housing precarity are not disposable, low income communities and the working poor deserve the same protections afforded to others in our province. Safety and protection from COVID-19 should not only be attainable to those who have financial security and are able to practice mitigation measures, such as physical distancing and isolation. We will not flatten the pandemic’s curve if we do not immediately work to eliminate the risks facing the most marginalized and resource those who are poor in our communities.

Community-led organizations are ready and willing to support you in developing solutions to this crisis.

Sincerely,

Adrianna Tetley
CEO, Alliance for Healthier Communities.

Thursday, April 2, 2020