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Last week, Toronto officials announced they were leasing hundreds of hotel rooms. On Tuesday, they said they now had 1,200 rooms available to house homeless people and ease the strain on city shelters, and were seeking more.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A sixth homeless person in Toronto has tested positive for COVID-19, as activists say the city has been too slow to move people from crowded shelters into the hundreds of hotel rooms it has leased in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Eileen de Villa, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, confirmed on Tuesday that a man who had been living in Seaton House, one of the city’s largest downtown shelters, had tested positive for the disease. Dr. de Villa said the man is in isolation, as is his roommate, while public-health workers trace other close contacts.

Dr. de Villa said 20 residents of Seaton House would be moved on Tuesday into leased hotel rooms, the first to be moved from the facility – one of the city’s biggest shelters – with more to follow by the end of the week. (The shelter’s current capacity is about 425 people.) Cleaning and disinfection was being stepped up at the shelter, she said, adding that shelter officials had already reduced capacity and limited the use of bunk beds to allow for more physical distancing in an effort to curb the virus’s spread.

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But activists and people who work with the homeless are asking why more residents have not already been moved out of the packed shelter system – where maintaining the recommended two metres of physical distance is often impossible and beds remain as close as just 75 centimetres.

Last week, city officials announced they were leasing hundreds of hotel rooms. On Tuesday, they said they now had 1,200 rooms available to house homeless people and ease the strain on city shelters, and were seeking more.

However, the city also said it had so far moved just 313 homeless people into these hotels – weeks into a battle with a virus that experts have warned repeatedly could be particularly deadly for the homeless population. The city says shelter officials are still assessing who in the population is most vulnerable.

“The City of Toronto has been taking a number of swift and significant steps to help our most vulnerable,” said Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who is spearheading the city’s emergency response to COVID-19.

But nurse and long-time homeless advocate Cathy Crowe said the response has been anything but swift.

She says the city should be marshalling buses and a “military-like” attitude to move as many people as possible out of Seaton House and its other shelters as soon as it can.

“This is a disaster,” Ms. Crowe said. “We need to be moving Heaven and Earth, and we are not doing it.”

While the city’s overall shelter system houses more than 7,000 people at night, those considered most at risk are the 4,500 in its shelters for single adults. (Homeless families in the system are already largely housed in hotels and motels.)

The new hotel rooms, which come on top of 300 extra cots opened up largely at shutdown community centres, are meant to allow for more physical distancing in the shelters that remain. But advocates for the homeless were distributing video images on Tuesday that appeared to show that cots were still lined up much closer than six feet apart at one of the city’s 24-hour “respite” centres, which are shelters of last resort where the homeless are often forced to sleep in closer quarters.

The city has also established a 40-bed isolation centre for homeless people awaiting COVID-19 tests. Another 200-bed centre in a hotel to be operated with a group of doctors called Inner City Health Associates was due to open Tuesday night, Chief Pegg said.

But the new facility has been clouded by confusion. While Chief Pegg called it an isolation centre on Tuesday, city officials had repeatedly called it a “recovery centre” for homeless people who test positive – even though the doctor in charge of setting it up has said it was not designed for that purpose.

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