When Alexey Nadein looks around Seaton House, Toronto’s largest homeless shelter, the facility looks little like he first encountered it, a year or so ago, when it was packed to the brim.
The pandemic last year forced the shelter to cut its capacity from upwards of 500 men to around 200.
After he returned from a stint in jail at the end of last summer, Nadein was greeted with new rules: one person to a bunk bed, and six-foot gaps between them.
The shelter had been through an outbreak in the Spring, which claimed the life of a resident. Now, the shelter has had another outbreak, and Nadein’s floor is barer still, as those who have tested positive have been shuttled over to an isolation site operated for the city’s homeless population.
“It’s very different from the first time I was here,” Nadein said by phone.
As of Tuesday, Toronto Public Health had confirmed 27 cases among staff and residents within the Seaton House site, and, on Thursday, tests for the virus were due to be conducted on floors that hadn’t yet been swabbed.
While Nadein reported getting two tests in recent weeks, he said he’d gotten spotty information about the outbreak, although shelter staff seemed to be doing their best.
The 42-year-old wasn’t too concerned for his own health, but said he worries about some of the older men on site.
Dr. Stephen Hwang, a physician with St. Michael’s Hospital who holds a weekly clinic at Seaton House with Toronto’s Inner City Health Associates, told the Star the site had a “significant number” of older men, and residents who dealt with medical conditions that increased their risk for severe COVID-19 infections.
While the shelter houses fewer seniors with acute medical needs than it did a few years ago, as many moved to a separate site, Hwang said there was still a high prevalence of chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease among residents, as well as a high prevalence of mental health and substance use issues, muscular-skeletal injuries and chronic conditions impairing mobility.
In the colder months, Nadein said it’s tough to say who’s fallen ill.
“It’s the wintertime, so everybody’s got a little bit of a cold,” he said, reporting a runny nose and sore throat, himself, Thursday.
While the City points to measures such as the mandatory wearing of masks in common areas, some residents have baulked against the rule, Nadein says.
“People don’t like wearing masks here,” he said.
Across Toronto, there’s been a recent increase of outbreaks in shelters. Although the City has paused reporting until next week, citing a transition to a new case-management system, as of Jan. 31 there were 79 infections reported across eight shelter and respite agencies.
As of Tuesday, the City’s isolation site was slightly more than half full, at 79 people among 148 spots, a drop from several weeks ago, when occupancy crested at more than 100.
The social services agency Dixon Hall has been dealing with numerous outbreaks, three, in recent weeks, including one across the street from Seaton House.
“It’s anxiety-inducing for all of us,” Dixon Hall’s housing services director, David Reycraft, said in an interview this week.
The City’s latest data shows 20 cases across Dixon Hall sites. As of this week, just one of the sites was still struggling with a continuing outbreak, at a respite on Lake Shore Boulevard East, Reycraft said. In that case, a “significant number” of the cases had appeared to be asymptomatic, and were only detected in a testing sweep after another case was unearthed, he added.
The respite has also struggled with what Reycraft described as its “large, dorm-like setting,” which, he said, made it difficult to ensure people weren’t getting near each other. Cases were showing up most in congregate settings, he said. Reycraft described work by City staff to find alternative spaces, whether they be in the form of shelter hotels or modular supportive housing, as “long overdue.”
“This housing ecosystem has been neglected for 30-plus years, and, all of a sudden now, we’re faced with this sort of health crisis; we’ve got to find solutions,” Reycraft said.
“And those solutions come in the form of housing.”
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com