Rye leaders are working to protect those experiencing homelessness amid COVID-19

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By Heidi Lee

A non-profit initiative by a Ryerson masters student is providing extra support to protect people experiencing homelessness in light of COVID-19. 

Brandon Arkinson, founder of Moving Hope, said the organization has been dropping off cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products such as menstrual products to shelters.

Moving Hope is a federally incorporated not-for-profit organization that supports 15 different shelters and public service agencies for the population experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.

Arkinson said the organization has to individualize their donations based on the needs and requirements of shelters or public service agencies.

“We work with [shelters] to understand their needs,” he said. “Then we give them things like pads, tampons, cleaning wipes, toothbrushes and toothpaste.”

For example, some shelters will not accept hand sanitizers because they contain alcohol, said Arkinson.

“For organizations like the Sherbourne Health Bus [they] would only take single-use items,” he said. 

He said the organization would tailor the needs of family-based organizations such as the Native Women’s Resource Centre by providing them supplies in family packs. 

In addition to hygiene products, Moving Hope has also supplied gloves and hand-sewn mittens for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, according to a statement via Facebook and Instagram on March 17. 

The organization has also developed other initiatives including The Red Glove Project, where the organization leaves 500 pairs of gloves in highly visible areas on the streets along with hand-written notes for vulnerable individuals to take.

Arkinson said he thinks the city needs to come together in times of need like this to support the critically vulnerable. 

“Practicing good hygiene and washing your hands doesn’t just help people from a personal level,” he said. “It allows the city to benefit as we are making sure that we are protecting those individuals who are maybe struggling and can’t protect themselves.”

“It is a progressive approach when we are really trying to take care of each other,” he added. 

On Moving Hope’s website, visitors can leave a note to those in Toronto who are vulnerable. The organization’s volunteers collect the messages they receive and write them on a card to hand out along with the gloves. 

“Just take a few minutes of your day just to leave kind words or thoughts,” said Arkinson. “It is a really easy approach to tell people to hang in there.”

Preventing outbreak in shelters

In a press release on Friday, the City of Toronto announced that Toronto Public Health is currently investigating a reported COVID-19 case in the homeless population.

Street nurse and advocate Cathy Crowe said the disease can spread if it enters the shelter system and this would put the homeless in danger. 

Community spreading occurs when individuals in a community are infected without previous contact with an infected person or travel to an infected area.  

According to the Epidemiological summary of COVID-19 cases in Canada, as of March 21, 41 per cent of cases are exposed to the disease during community settings while the majority of cases (47 per cent) come from travelers. 

“Everyone in this country is being told to social distance and wash their hands frequently,” she said. “But that is pretty much impossible to do if you are homeless.” 

Crowe, who is also a distinguished visiting practitioner at Ryerson, said people who are homeless do not have the option to go into a room and isolate themselves. 

“There is a lot of evidence showing that this population is very vulnerable to COVID-19,” she said.

According to Health Canada, those who are 65 and over, with compromised immune systems and with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19. 

In addition, the 2018 Street Needs Assessment states there are around 8,715 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Results showed that 10 per cent of respondents are seniors and 31 per cent of respondents had chronic or acute medical conditions. 

Crowe said people experiencing homelessness should be added to the case definition for COVID-19. 

According to Health Canada, case definitions offer a list of general criterias to determine whether an individual has a disease or other health condition. Their purpose is to surveil, report and classify cases, but not to replace clinical judgements in patients.

Case definitions provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health are current as of March 13 and did not include homelessness. 

“Right now the whole service of testing is focusing on people who have travelled as resources are so limited,” she said. 

At a city level, Crowe said there needs to be less crowding in the existing shelter system and social distancing in shelters should be enforced.

Social distancing could reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in Canada if people keep physical distance between each other, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“In a shelter, that means not having cots, mats and beds on the floor closer than six feet,” she said. “Right now nearly none of the places are doing that due to the lack of spaces.”

The City of Toronto announced on Tuesday the Shelter Support and Housing Administration is responding to the situation by creating new programs for additional social distancing spaces. 

By the end of this week, the city is expected to have 200 more spaces within the existing shelter system. 

Prior to COVID-19, Crowe said her campaign’s ultimate goal is to add 2,000 more shelter beds to Toronto’s shelter system, which would allow it to operate at 90 per cent capacity.

“200 more spaces is not enough,” she said. “I am sure they will have to open more.”

The city is also working on an isolation service for the homeless who are being tested for COVID-19. 

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