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Men gather outside of a shelter in downtown Toronto on March 28, 2020. Advocates are concerned about protecting the homeless and the shelter system from the spread of highly contagious COVID-19.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Toronto says it will lease hundreds more hotel rooms to ease the crowding in its homeless shelter system in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, as a Montreal man became the country’s first homeless death from the virus.

Activists in cities across Canada have been warning that homeless shelters could become hot spots for the disease, as most are crowded places where it is extremely difficult to allow for the two metres of physical distancing recommended by public-health officials.

There are also worrying signs the virus could be spreading among a population that experts warn is extremely vulnerable, as many homeless people suffer from other health problems.

The Montreal Gazette on Monday reported that an elderly homeless man had died after testing positive for the virus.

And Toronto officials confirmed on Monday that a shelter worker in the city, at a centre run by a third-party agency, had tested positive for the virus. Four homeless people in Toronto have tested positive, with more than 20 in isolation awaiting test results.

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Mary-Anne Bédard, the city’s general manager of shelter, housing and support, said that during the weekend, Toronto had signed contracts with three hotels to lease about 300 hotel rooms, and was in discussions with another five hotels about leasing 500 more.

She said the new space would allow it to start to spread out the population and create "social distancing” in the part of its shelter system now considered most at risk: the shelters provided for single adults, which house 4,500 people a night. (Toronto has long used hotels and motels to accommodate homeless families in its shelter system, which in all houses more than 7,000 people a night.)

Ms. Bédard said city shelter officials were looking at facility capacities and plan to move the most vulnerable homeless people to the new hotel spaces in order to spread out those who remain in shelters, where new protocols see homeless peoples’ temperatures taken and symptoms screened as they enter.

But she acknowledged that converting shelters to comply with public-health directives could require still finding another 1,000 beds, in order to cut the number staying in these shelters in half.

Last week, the city opened more than 300 new spaces, mostly in disused community centres, in an attempt to thin the numbers in its 24-hour respite centres, the most crowded facilities in the system and considered shelters of last resort.

Toronto has also opened a 40-bed isolation centre in a hotel for homeless people awaiting test results for the virus. Another converted hotel, set to open this week with provincial funding, will provide isolation and treatment for those who do test positive.

The city also said Monday that it has brought in portable washrooms and hand-washing stations at areas with high concentrations of homeless people, who can no longer use washrooms in coffee shops or restaurants, which are now closed.

Mayor John Tory said officials are actively looking for more hotels and other buildings to convert into homeless shelters – and even permanent housing: “We’re trying to see if some of those vacant sites could be converted into permanent housing to help with our affordable housing shortage, once this crisis is passed.”

In Vancouver, where shelters are typically much smaller than in Toronto, no shelters have been closed and no homeless people or people in shelters have been moved to hotel rooms or any other facility yet.

The region has secured 16 sites – hotels, motels and community centres – to be available for people needing to self-isolate.

So far, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside, the Vancouver neighbourhood with the country’s most intense concentration of homeless people, shelters and people living in small residential hotels, often with shared bathrooms.

But there have been some cases of people in problematic housing elsewhere in the city getting COVID-19, said Janice Abbott, whose non-profits Atira Women's Resources Society and Atira Property Management run 40 buildings that provide housing or shelter space to about 4,000 people throughout the city.

She said one of the requisitioned hotels is about to open, once some fencing has been installed and renovations have been done.

“We have one hotel that we are waiting to deploy ... for folks in recovering from [COVID-19] who don’t need to be in hospital but need to be isolated for the remainder of the 14 days.”

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need.

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