An empty stairwell was Brian-Bao Ly’s bedroom last December. But with the COVID-19 pandemic’s rising spread and most places following lockdown orders, the 27-year-old Torontonian is grateful he doesn’t have to sleep there or anywhere in public now.
“My heart goes out to everyone on the streets right now who isn’t as well-connected [as I am],” he told HuffPost Canada. “I’m in a unique position where even though I’m homeless, I’m technically being housed.”
Ly is currently living in an addiction rehab treatment centre in downtown Toronto. He narrowly secured a bed there in mid-March. If the centre hadn’t been classified as an essential business by the Doug Ford government, Ly said he wouldn’t have a safe place to stay throughout this public health crisis.
(Disclosure: Brian and the author were formerly acquainted as members of an LGBTQ2S+ support group in 2014).
In spite of the hardships, substance-use struggles, and family trauma he’s healing from, Ly considers himself lucky. In a treatment centre, he can practice social distancing as he progresses in his recovery. Locals he knows who also have no fixed addresses are having an even harder time navigating their already precarious worlds during this pandemic.
His friends have no restaurants nor public libraries to keep warm in. The closure of public spaces and confusion about where they can be has left many homeless and street-involved Canadians in vulnerable positions, with the front-line workers that advocate for them stretched perilously thin.
Homeless take care of their health needs in public spaces
Jenna Davies, 33, is a Toronto-based social worker said the city’s vulnerable use public spaces in different ways in order to take care of themselves. For her clients who were institutionalized before the pandemic, she’s needed to emphasize they can no longer access spaces that would typically offer sanctuary.
“I have to hammer home that the places they go to, the McDonald’s and the libraries, the places they sleep for a bit aren’t open,” she told HuffPost Canada, adding that the closure of shopping malls has been a huge hit.
“They’re telling everybody to go inside to their homes. The Eaton Centre [mall] is closed,” one client told her. “What happens if you don’t have a home?”
The lack of public toilets in Canada means many rely on restaurant restrooms to stay on top of their hygiene. Without access to running water, regular hand-washing is either impossible or takes place with inadequate resources; a reporter from Victoria, B.C. noticed a tent city had hand-washing stations set up with buckets.
In order to navigate their surroundings safely, many individuals map trustworthy locations and are aware of what services work best for them. The virus throwing a wrench into their sense of stability can be quite distressing for many, Davies notes, as closures may require they move from one shelter to another.
“From a mental health standpoint, people are drained. They were already living in a crisis state. The triggers they’re experiencing in shelters are heightened,” she said.
Supporting homeless challenged by lack of real-time updates: front-line worker
“Where can I take a shower?” Under normal circumstances, Davies can answer this query with ease. But now, this question has her stumped. Many non-profits and community partners have closed their doors.
Like many in her field, Davies is an expert at crisis troubleshooting. Pre-pandemic, she was already used to making countless phone calls, walking through ravines, and taking long van rides to see her clients in order to connect them to resources.
“Every time someone asks me a question, I say, ’Let me call the service you’re asking me about, because I don’t know if it’s still running,’” she said.
The novel coronavirus has effectively tripled her calls and scrambled her everyday interactions with the city’s vulnerable. Without real-time updates from social service agencies, she’s forced to scour social media, news briefings, and other sources in order to access vital information.
And while empty streets have been marvelled at online, for Davies they’re a source of worry; she fears homeless individuals left on streets may stand out more to police and be criminalized.
Watch: Canadian streets empty out during COVID-19 pandemic. Story continues below.
Sometimes, her clients end up informing her about a change in services they can access.
“Clients are calling me and telling me they’re moving to a new shelter,” she told HuffPost Canada. “It’s difficult to support people when you yourself don’t have a full plan of action.”
There’s no one place Davies and other front-line workers can turn to as a unified authority on what’s open for her clients; as she points out, they end up piecemealing solutions for those they serve through constant communication with other agencies about the most up-to-date practices and closures. She blames the poor circulation of social service updates for making the lives of her clients that much harder.
More action is needed, advocates say
Best practices about COVID-19 prevention for agencies are changing by the day, with government aid arriving in spurts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently acknowledged the high COVID-19 risk homeless populations face and introduced guidelines for service providers, in addition to committing $157-million to assisting Canadians experiencing homelessness.
Provinces like Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta are rolling out their own relief funds for shelters and alternative housing options. Cities are undertaking strategies to address the impossibility of social distancing in a crowded shelter system. Convention centres are housing Edmontonians in need. Hotels, motels, and other alternative housing solutions by Toronto have been described as a “welcome, but limited response” by advocates.
Dr. Naheed Dosani is a palliative care physician who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. He applauded the national efforts, but said “a dire need” should make everyone move faster.
“Once this disease hits the shelter system, it has the potential to spread like wildfire,” he told HuffPost Canada. American medical professionals suggest homeless individuals who use shelters are twice as likely to get COVID-19 as the rest of the population.
Safety equipment shortages endanger workers: doctor
Dosani said it’s unfortunate that those on the frontlines need to advocate for timely government responses for homelessness support as well as themselves, on top of their already demanding jobs.
“It’s hard enough for health providers, peer workers, and social workers to provide care,” he told HuffPost Canada. “We’re already doing work addressing a disparity gap, why is the burden of proof on us to do that work?”
Another concern among front-line workers is a shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Shelter workers, especially those who may be screening COVID-19 symptoms in clients, can’t always access PPE to keep themselves safe, the Toronto Star reports.
“If they fall sick, who’s going to care for our most vulnerable?” Dosani asked.
How you can support homeless Canadians in your community
Shut down judgment
“Covidiots,” a.k.a. people who deliberately break COVID-19 safety protocol by ignoring social distancing often get shamed online for putting having fun over protecting others.
While Ly strongly urges Canadians who can to stay inside and also scorns those who hold parties or take unnecessary outside trips, he notes that not everyone is able to stay the recommended distance away from others: in a men’s shelter he was staying before joining the treatment centre, he said beds weren’t secured properly.
Some are making difficult decisions for others’ safety: a client told Dosani that he chose the streets over shelters to keep his friends healthy.
Donate to good causes
While government funds are on the way, many charities and non-profits need as much help as they can get. Donations to shelters, as well local organizations that homeless individuals rely on can put resources in the hands of those who can best deliver them.
Hand out gift cards
Without foot traffic, panhandlers have seen a decrease in income. Giving generously is a recommendation Davies makes. She also said it’s worth giving gift cards, as they makes it easier on people to enter establishments and can also be bartered with others.
Stand with advocates
“Housing is a human right” is a common stance taken by front-line workers. Davies noted that the fact that government relief was available suggests to her that when things get back to normal, the same urgency can be applied to housing all Canadians.
“Wouldn’t this be incredible if this was the response when a pandemic wasn’t happening? It shows me that we can do these things, we just need the will to do them,” she said.
Acknowledging someone on the street with a smile or a physically distant conversation can make a world of difference, Davies said, although she notes that people are within their rights not to be friendly towards strangers they don’t know.
Ly also extends this to the front-line workers and agencies who worked to get him a safe place to recover. He shared nothing but praise for staff who would check on his mental health, as well as facilitated a COVID-19 test after he developed symptoms a week ago — a few days ago, he was happy to report that he tested negative.
“Choose to be kind. If nothing else, that’s all we can really ask,” Brian Ly said.