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Tents set up on the wide median on University Ave. between Queen St. W and Armoury St. in downtown Toronto, on March 25, 2020.Fred Lum

Some charities are distributing tents to Toronto’s homeless, encouraging them to camp out in the city’s ravines rather than take their chances in its crowded shelter system where officials confirmed Friday that four people have now tested positive for COVID-19.

The desperate notion comes as the city scrambles to allow for “social distancing” in its strained shelter network, adding hundreds of beds in disused community centres and hotels, screening homeless people for symptoms and setting up special isolation centres.

Advocates for the homeless say the city needs to do much more and quickly, or it will face an outbreak that could race through the tight quarters of its shelters, which have been jammed for years and together usually house more than 7,000 people a night.

Some are taking matters into their own hands: Sanctuary Toronto, a Christian charity in the city’s downtown, is among those asking for people to donate tents, so that homeless people can immediately escape the shelters and isolate themselves from the disease.

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Toronto, says social distancing – keeping two metres from other people at all times – is next to impossible in the city’s packed shelters. And he warns that unless the city finds hundreds more hotel rooms or other more spread-out accommodations for its shelter population quickly, “we may end up seeing those numbers of people coming out, instead, in body bags.”

Cathy Crowe, a nurse and long-time advocate for the homeless, said some organizations that work with the homeless have been informally handing out tents for weeks.

But agencies receiving city funding are barred from doing so, she said, under long-standing policies meant to encourage homeless people to come inside. (Mr. Johnson Hatlem says Sanctuary does not receive city funding.) The city says it recently allowed the distribution of sleeping bags and blankets to homeless people who refuse shelter, but that no city-funded agencies hand out tents. The city also says it is reviewing its policies on these issues in light of COVID-19.

The city has pledged not to evict homeless people camping out in ravines or other areas for now, although it does say it will monitor encampments for health and safety concerns.

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A volunteer with Sanctuary, a charitable organization, delivers donated clothes and tents to the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto on March 25, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It has added more than 300 new shelter beds at eight new locations, meant to allow its other shelters to create more space for social distancing. Many of the new shelters are in community centres left vacant as the city battles the virus. As of Thursday, the city said there were also 27 homeless people in a new 40-room isolation shelter awaiting COVID-19 test results, a facility it says it can expand. Another 30 people were at another site set up to isolate shelter users who had travelled internationally, including asylum seekers, for two weeks.

City Councillor Joe Cressy, chairman of Toronto’s Board of Health, said the city, in conjunction with the province, is also set to take over a 200-room hotel to both provide extra shelter capacity and serve as a centre to isolate and treat homeless people who test positive. More hotel space, and an entire vacant apartment building, could also be brought online, he said.

Mr. Cressy argues that simply handing out tents would further alienate homeless people from medical and other help. He said the city was doing all it can: “We had a homelessness crisis before COVID-19. So we are starting in a crisis situation.”

The new virus, medical experts say, puts homeless people – who often suffer from addictions and other illnesses – particularly at risk. And Toronto’s shelter system, which has been stretched by an influx of refugee claimants in recent years, has seen diseases spread in the past. An influenza outbreak in 2018 killed one man sent 15 to hospital.

Mary-Anne Bedard, the city’s general manager of shelter, housing and support, said the new shelter beds were primarily meant to free up social-distancing space in what the city calls its 24-hour respite centres. These are the city’s shelters of last resort, where homeless people often sleep in closer quarters than in traditional homeless shelters.

She also initially told reporters earlier this week that in the rest of the city’s shelters, the standard was already for homeless people to sleep six-feet apart. But the city’s own shelter standards only specify a minimum of two-and-a-half feet, well short of the six feet called for by public health officials in the wake of the pandemic. On Friday, Ms. Bedard said she misspoke, and that shelter officials were actively looking at ways to increase that distance in as many shelters as possible.

Advocates for the homeless said the shelters remain crowded, as an unverified photo of cots jammed together circulated on social media this week. Ms. Crowe said she saw packed conditions not only in a 24-hour respite centre, but in a new city shelter set up to respond to COVID-19. Ms. Bedard said Friday that problems at one of the new locations had been rectified, with all cots in the new centres now six feet from each other.

The Salvation Army, which operates six shelters in Toronto, says the organization’s newer facilities have been able to make more space available. But spokesman John Murray said homeless people cannot sleep six feet apart in places like the Salvation Army’s older 480-bed Maxwell Meighen Centre, on the east side of Toronto’s central core, unless the city can find other accommodations for many of its residents.

Mr. Murray added that simply sending homeless people off on their own to camp is not an alternative: “Just to sort of say, here’s a pup tent, go down into the Rosedale Valley Road, I don’t think that’s a solution.”

Mayor John Tory said the city is acting on reports of overcrowding in its shelters: “As some of these examples have come to our attention through various means, I have every confidence that the officials are addressing them."

Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said this week her department was working well with shelter officials. But she acknowledged more needed to be done: “I completely appreciate that there may be some ways to go yet.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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