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Spyros Voiatzis lives nere Oppenheimer Park homeless encampment in Vancouver and said he worries that viral outbreaks like COVID 19 could have damaging impacts on already vulnerable populations, like the homeless.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Poverty advocates, housing providers and politicians across Canada are scrambling to figure out what to do to protect vulnerable people who are homeless, in shelters or in certain high-risk social-housing buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As everyone raises concerns about how quickly the virus might spread among populations who already have other health challenges, Toronto has acquired hotel space to deal with both those still well and those possibly infected, according to a statement from the city’s communications staff.

“The City has acquired additional hotel space to move healthy people into in order to create isolation space at shelter sites and will have some limited ability to isolate and quarantine persons under investigation or diagnosed with COVID-19,” said the Saturday statement to The Globe and Mail.

In Vancouver, shelters and housing providers are sprinting to introduce new cleaning measures and make contingency plans, but there is no public announcement yet about any provisions for isolating homeless people who get infected.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said some city services are going to be curtailed to put help where it’s needed. Many other options are being considered.

“This is my top concern. We have about 10,000 residents who can’t self-isolate and have compromised health. We are beginning to shut down all non-essential services … to target our resources.”

Officials in both cities have heard the federal government is about to announce something, but it’s not clear exactly what yet.

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The Carnegie Community Centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is a high-traffic area with services that many homeless and underhoused people rely on.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Stewart said he is trying to get more details on that because the city can’t handle this on its own.

“If this runs into the millions, we can’t sustain that. If we have to rent out a lot of spaces, who is going to pay?”

In both of those major cities, advocates are frantic about calling for immediate resources and policy changes.

Toronto homeless advocate and street nurse Cathy Crowe is urging all levels of government to do much more immediately, from defining homeless people as top high-risk priorities for virus testing to extreme new measures to making shelters less prone to infection transmission.

“We remain acutely alarmed at the disorganized and slow response to protect homeless people, workers and volunteers during this pandemic,” she wrote in a joint letter from several organizations to Toronto Mayor John Tory on Sunday morning. “We have received only vague assurances and comments that plans include obtaining buildings that will used for additional shelter, shifting people from one site to another, protection of seniors, obtaining motel rooms for isolation, and creating a pot of money for additional cleaning. There have been no specifics or timeline.”

Several temporary shelters in Toronto closed Friday because they are in facilities, such as church basements or community halls, that aren’t well set up for protecting people from disease transmission and are mainly staffed by older volunteers who would be at risk.

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In Vancouver, housing providers such as Janice Abbott, whose non-profit Atira Housing Society and Atira Property Management manages 40 buildings with 4,000 people in them, ranging from market housing to single-room residential hotels to shelters, has moved into high gear with as many preventive measures as her organization can manage on its own.

But she said there needs to be much more and called for immediate action.

Ms. Abbott said those who serve the homeless are facing any number of extreme challenges, from figuring out how to isolate people who might test positive to feeding them safely without transmitting infection to potentially dealing with staff shortages.

Her organization moved to ban visitors from its facilities on Friday, something that upset many residents.

But, she said, it was needed, not only to prevent possible infections in rooming houses and hotels where residents share bathrooms already, but to prepare for the possibility that many of Atira’s 900 staff members may not make it to work.

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Advocates say that viral outbreaks like COVID 19 could have damaging impacts on already vulnerable populations, like the many homeless and marginalized people who live nearby.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

“The less traffic there is, the less chance of the virus spreading.”

Residences are setting up temporary handwashing stations with bars of soap. They’ve also moved to serving meals using disposable plates and cutlery and have ordered marine toilets – portable toilets that can be set up in a room – if any residents have to be isolated while waiting for test results.

A woman living in one of Atira’s buildings was in 72-hour isolation Friday and Saturday for that reason, although her results have since come back negative for COVID-19.

On Monday, Atira will restrict shopping carts because staff fear running out of space. Companies that serve many of the social-housing buildings and homeless shelters, including junk-removal operations, have said they can’t guarantee the usual level of service, meaning residences may experience big accumulations of discarded materials.

Those who run shelters and homeless services from Moncton to Montreal to Calgary and Edmonton have all started expressing alarm publicly about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak among their clients. They have been putting in place new policies for extra cleaning, changing the way they serve meals, and trying to figure out what to do if they need to quarantine a resident.

Kathy Christiansen, the director of Alpha House in Calgary, also issued a statement Friday about extra measures for cleaning and protection taken there.

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