TORONTO — Mariam Moussa Agrei was a human rights activist dedicated to improving the lives of women and refugees until she herself was forced to flee. In 2017, she fled Chad to escape a forced marriage and sought asylum in Canada. Before finding stable housing, she lived in a homeless shelter during the pandemic, a place Agrei says she wouldn’t “wish for her worst enemy.”
While living at Fred Victor’s Women’s Hostel for nearly a year, Agrei subsisted on $390 a month, enough to pay for a phone and a transit pass and not much else. She became depressed, and said life at the shelter became more stressful and even dangerous when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Agrei felt unsafe.
“I wasn’t able to sleep or eat most of the time,” Agrei said. “It’s not a life you’d wish for your worst enemy.”
Agrei said the shelter’s response to the spread of COVID-19 was poor. Even though precautionary measures were put in place, proper physical distancing was not practised, she said, such as up to 10 beds and bunk beds spaced less than half a metre apart from each other in one room.
Although physical distancing policies were in place in the eating areas, the measures were not always enforced, she said.
“Sometimes, when people are sitting, they put the chairs really close to each other. Or [they’d] allow three rooms [of people] to be in there. And then we are almost sitting next to each other or walking next to each other to get the food,” Agrei said.
In April, the shelter expanded its hostel operations to 24 hours a day to “alleviate capacity pressure” on its women’s drop-in program. It said it was continue to follow “infection prevention, screening and response guidelines as provided by Public Health officials” and the city.
That same month, a collection of community organizations that work with homeless people sued the City of Toronto over its failure to improve infection control procedures at its shelters and respite centres.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the City of Toronto violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights code, by putting the lives of homeless people in danger by denying them equal rights to life and security.
“To treat shelters as the inevitable site of an outbreak is a form of — amongst other things — discrimination: to say that this population is not worthy and deserving of the same life-saving measures as others,” Aviv said.
There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at nine of the city’s shelters, and two people within Toronto’s shelter system have died after being infected. At least nine homeless individuals have been hospitalized. Others are avoiding shelters out of fear of contracting the virus.
“Imagine how terrifying it must be to choose a cold, dark space in a ravine, or camping out somewhere that you can find a place to lay your head rather than going indoors to a bed,” she said.
Race-based data collected by health officials in Toronto has shown that low-income earners, recent immigrants and visible minorities are more likely to both contract and die from the coronavirus than the rest of the population.
“We also need to be clear that the population of homeless people disproportionately includes people who are from various marginalized groups. There’s a disproportionate number of people in the homeless population who are Black, are Indigenous, who have mental and physical disabilities and who are elderly,” Aviv noted.
In May, the lawsuit was settled after the City of Toronto agreed to improve health precautions in shelters. The use of bunk beds was discontinued and beds were moved two metres apart, in accordance with public health directives. Since mid-March, the city has moved more than 1,300 people who were homeless into permanent housing, according to a July news release.
Last month, Toronto city council endorsed a plan to build 250 housing units for the homeless by early 2021. The “expedited plan” would see 110 of those modular housing units created by September to respond to the pandemic.
Agrei was able to move out of the shelter and into an apartment in April, but she’s still traumatized by the 10 months she stayed at the Fred Victor facility.
“I’m still not over the fact that I was in the shelter. I still have dreams or wake up in the morning thinking I’m still in the shelter with the COVID,” said Agrei.
She worries pandemic measures are preventing women in shelters from accessing valuable information. Agrei said having access to a therapist helped her cope, and it was through conversations with shelter staff that led Agrei to access the Toronto Transitional Housing Allowance Program that gave her more stability in her life.
Her new roommate is a Kenyan refugee she met at the shelter. Agrei likened herself to a child who was given a prize they were promised a long time ago.
“I’m grateful for just having a roof over my head and a hot shower,” she said.
But Agrei still faces an uncertain future. Her work permit has expired and she’s facing a removal order that could lead to deportation. Still, Agrei remains optimistic, encouraged by the growing number of people speaking out about social issues in light of anti-Black racism protests that have spread across the globe.