A Toronto shelter for people experiencing homelessness has closed for two weeks after COVID-19 killed two men who were staying there and infected 18 others.
Executive director Bob Duff says St. Simon’s shelter, located near Bloor and Sherbourne streets, shut down last week after the results came in from an on-site test of all residents.
“More than a third tested positive, and they were all asymptomatic,” Duff told CBC News. A staff member was also found to have COVID-19.
The widespread testing was prompted by the deaths of two men who had lived at St. Simon’s.
In the first case, Duff says, the man had pre-existing conditions and died at Toronto General Hospital in late April, days after being admitted. He was found to have the virus after he died.
In the second case, just over a week ago, the man showed some COVID-19 symptoms and was urged by Duff and other St. Simon’s staff members to get tested for the virus, but chose to leave the shelter.
“We were advised by his family that he was found deceased in a hotel room seven days later,” Duff said.
St. Simon’s is now being deep-cleaned and sanitized, with plans to reopen gradually next week.
11 active outbreaks in Toronto shelters
Last week’s test results put St. Simon’s on the list of Toronto shelters that have been hardest hit by COVID-19.
According to the City of Toronto’s latest data, there have been 451 COVID-19 cases connected to the shelter system.
The bulk of cases in the city’s 11 active outbreaks are at Costi (90 cases), the Salvation Army’s Evangeline Residence (21 cases,) and Seaton House (39 cases).
There were also two shelter-related COVID-19 deaths prior to the outbreak at St. Simon’s: one connected to Dixon Hall’s The School House, the other to Seaton House.
Now, residents and others who use the services at St. Simon’s have been moved to a variety of hotels and facilities, including the Toronto Family Residence on Kingston Road, and a Comfort Inn on Rexdale Boulevard.
The City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) division told CBC Toronto that as of the middle of the day on Friday, 2,924 clients had been moved for physical distancing reasons into 31 different temporary sites.
COVID-19 recovery programs
Meanwhile, those who have tested positive from St. Simon’s, like Michael Eschbach, have been given rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel on Islington Avenue.
He’s one of just under 200 shelter residents who are now in one of the city’s two COVID-19 recovery programs.
“[Staff] call us three four times to see how we are doing, if any symptoms have changed,” he told CBC Toronto. “Once you have tested positive, this is a great place to go to.”
So far, Eschbach has been asymptomatic, but with several underlying health conditions, he says he’s both afraid of getting sicker and upset that he may have unknowingly spread the virus to others before he was diagnosed.
He’s also angry at St. Simon’s, because he believes the shelter took too long to take action to protect residents.
“Every minute I saw a supervisor, I told them to get this place fixed, but it just fell on deaf ears,” he told CBC News over the phone.
Eschbach isn’t alone in thinking that precautions needed to come together faster.
In Toronto, a coalition of public-interest organizations filed legal proceedings against the City of Toronto in late April over what they called “deplorable” conditions in the shelter system.
Several weeks later, they reached an agreement, with the city agreeing to “use its best efforts” to create a safe amount of space between beds, among other steps.
Duff says he and his staff have done what they could to keep residents and others who use the shelter’s services safe during the pandemic, changing everything from how their meals are prepared and distributed, to how laundry facilities are organized and how beds are arranged.
The shelter also began reducing its capacity earlier this month, from 66 to 45 over two weeks to help with physical distancing.
Even more rules will be put in place when they reopen, with continuing lower capacity and rules requiring users to wear masks in the washrooms, for example, where it’s not possible to physically distance.
Duff says as someone who experienced homelessness himself in the early 1990s, seeing an outbreak in the shelter he runs has been particularly painful.
“Being homeless is never easy, and being homeless during COVID Is just unfathomable,” he said.