Content warning: this story discusses instances of sexual assault. Please read with care.

Since COVID-19 hit Toronto, Michael Eschbach has been infected with the virus —and been forced to move— twice. He’s also become an advocate for unhoused people trying to get by in an increasingly hostile city.

Eschbach contracted COVID along with 18 other residents of St. Simon’s men’s shelter after publicly asking the City of Toronto to better protect elderly residents like him by providing them with private spaces like hotels or housing where they could safely socially distance.

Then two of the infected residents died of COVID, and a coalition of community groups took legal actions against the city, forcing it to lease hotel spaces where residents could socially distance themselves in private rooms.

In one interview, Eschbach described violence in the regular shelter system as pervasive, and in another, he called for permanent housing. Eschbach, who is 61 years old and has multiple chronic health issues, was moved to the Comfort Inn shelter hotel near Toronto’s Pearson airport after contracting COVID. He stayed for two years.

I began following his story in the spring of 2020 after reading his pleas on Twitter for physical distancing at St Simon’s, and I spent the next year learning about his experiences, and those of others living in Toronto’s shelter hotel system or in the encampments of tents in public parks. I profiled Eschbach and others in my 2021 book, On Opium: Pain, Pleasure, and Other Matters of Substance.

Like the other roughly 3,900 people who were then staying in Toronto’s shelter hotels, Eschbach hoped to move out of his hotel room and into an apartment. But a permanent home has yet to materialize. In January, after nine months at the hotel, he told CTV News he’d received only one offer of permanent housing.

For this article, Eschbach and I agreed he would call me from the phone in the hotel shelter lobby. But his call never came. The next day, I learned he had been abruptly evicted from the Comfort Inn. Now, Eschbach is back in a shared or “congregate” space, where residents sleep on cots or mats on the floor. 

Congregate shelters can be dangerous and risky for the elderly or medically vulnerable, and a space in one can be hard to come by: occupancy in the regular shelter system in Toronto is consistently at close to 100 percent. An estimated 100 people are turned away daily from the city’s shelters, even as it remains illegal to sleep in tents in a public park.

Eschbach’s experience contracting COVID, and facing a ban that forced him to move between shelters, is not unusual. It’s but one example of how, despite having Canada’s largest unhoused population, Toronto’s response to an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by the pandemic has been slow, half-hearted and lacking in innovation.

A socially distanced protest for shelter hotels and housing in Toronto, April 2020. Photo: Michael Swan

The promise of hotel shelters

With the hotel industry at a standstill during the pandemic, using hotels for shelters was mutually advantageous for hotel owners and the city. Following the first lawsuit requiring a reduction of the number of beds in shelters to allow for physical distancing, the city gradually began opening hotel shelters in May 2020. 

Ultimately, about forty per cent of people within Toronto’s regular shelter system were moved into hotels during the first two years of the pandemic, according to Gord Tanner, general manager of the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA), which is in charge of both the regular and the new hotel shelter systems. 

As of May 2022, the city reported that some 3,200 residents were housed in 25 shelter hotels in Toronto.  

Most—but not all—shelter hotel residents have their own bedroom with a self-contained, private washroom. They have their own key, and private space to store possessions to guard against theft. The hope was that individual hotel rooms would represent a change from the jail-like feeling and violence sometimes pervasive in congregate shelters. 

While some expressed relief at being out of congregate living, others said conditions at the hotels ranged from chaotic to utterly grim. 

“As far as the promise from the city went, it seemed that it was going to be a step up, that we’d still have that community of the park but with that extra element of security,” said a resident of the Novotel hotel shelter who goes by the name Gru. 

Gru was happy living in a homeless encampment before accepting the offer of a hotel space in March of 2021. Residents who stayed on in that encampment, in a downtown park, were evicted in a major and controversial police operation last summer. But in his words, the hotels turned out to be “carceral hellholes.”

“They are all very similar in terms of they all feel kind of like a minimum security jail,” said Gru, who spent time in such a facility as a youth in Thunder Bay. Like the regular shelter system, shelter hotels share other problems common in punitive settings.

“So many rapes here and so many sexual assaults,” said Jennifer Jewell, 52, who is a resident of the Bond Hotel, just east of Toronto’s downtown core. Jewell manages a Twitter account where she and fellow Bond Hotel residents post about personal experiences in the shelter hotel. Jewell, who uses a wheelchair, shared how she was once trapped in her unit during a fire; other posts refer to the sexual violence that partly inspired the turn to speaking out on social media. 

Jewell was born and raised in Toronto and became homeless in January of 2020. Like Gru, she was initially in a tent in another downtown park before accepting city workers’ offer of a shelter hotel space. It’s a decision she now regrets. 

Jewell described how women staying at the Bond who were too afraid to sleep alone following rapes, and how others were later kicked out of the hotel due to behavioral issues following an assault. Over a period of months, she said, a man would show up at the Bond and rape women after providing them with fentanyl.

“It wasn’t until one woman came forward and actually charged him and then you know, a bunch more women came forward,” said Jewell. “That sort of thing happens here all the time.”

Everyone I spoke with for this article, including the head of SSHA, acknowledges that acts of sexual assault and sexual violence occur in the shelter hotel system. But the City of Toronto doesn’t have a record of how many assaults have occurred.

The Novotel hotel in Toronto.

Shelter bans breed confusion 

City of Toronto documents obtained by Information Mobilization and Public Accountability Toronto (IMPACT), a grassroots collective pushing to improve decision-maker accountability on shelter and housing issues in the city, show that the practice of evicting people from shelter hotels happens frequently. 

The documents record 1,694 “temporary service restrictions,” as the city calls the removals, recorded between March 1, 2020 and July 8th, 2021. 

These bans have sometimes been described to residents as an indefinite service restriction, which is akin to a permanent ban from a given location.

Advocates say that whether they are called bans or service restrictions, they result in people hanging around the shelter they’ve been kicked out of, in emotional trauma and general physical decline. And there’s no way of knowing just how many people are in this situation.

“It’s incredibly rare that it’s documented as a permanent ban,” said A.J. Withers, a member of IMPACT. “On paper, they haven’t been banned.”

In fact, according to these FOI documents, the city did not record any permanent bans or indefinite service restrictions during this period.

But that’s not the reality, according to shelter hotel residents and advocates, including Eschbach, who was moved without being provided with any documentation or information about why.

Eschbach was first infected with COVID at St. Simon’s, and then again in his shelter hotel. He is now back in a congregate space that he says looks like a military barracks, where 44 men and women sleep on cots during Ontario’s seventh wave of COVID-19.

“None of the clients wear a mask,” he told me. “Staff sometimes.”

The SSHA’s Tanner initially told me the only situation he could imagine a resident being forcibly transferred out of the shelter hotel system and into a congregate setting is for setting fires. Later, however, he allowed that a person could be sent back to the congregate setting for other reasons. 

Diana Chan McNally, a frontline worker at All Saints Church-Community Centre, told me people have been kicked out of hotels for things as innocuous as being suspected of smoking, or for talking back.

An encampment in Toronto in December, 2020. Photo: Michael Swan

A lack of long term options

Shelter hotels were supposed to be a good thing, a step up from congregate shelters, and a move towards permanent housing. They were “something that we were specifically fighting for … but what we weren’t looking for is the kind of implementation I think we’ve actually seen,” according to McNally. 

Other issues have included a persistent reluctance to address the risk of drug overdose in settings (like hotels) where privacy increases overdose risk; and a lack of resident and advocate input in local decision-making.

Most of the leases on Toronto’s shelter hotels were set to expire in April, but the city has re-negotiated and is allowing residents to stay until April of 2023. Tanner says the city is in active conversation with the rest of the properties to ensure none will close before winter. But there’s no guarantee of that yet.

The COVID-19 Shelter Transition and Relocation Plan Update, which was presented to the city council’s economic and community development committee in March, outlined a two-year phased transition away from shelter hotels. While it includes the extension of the leases on twelve hotels until next April, it also foresees the closure of five of the 27 hotel shelter sites this year. 

“It’s like a knife hanging over you,” said McNally of her clients’ experience as they wait to find out whether they will continue to be housed or not. “And I already know people who are coming up with contingency plans for what happens when [the hotels] do close.”

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has essentially declared the pandemic over and barely acknowledged the fact that shared air is the primary mode of transmission. By any measure, the residents of Toronto’s shelter system remain among the city’s most vulnerable. 

Monkeypox, which is transmitted through close, sustained contact with respiratory droplets or through surfaces and bedding, has now entered the shelter system.

The city has yet to confirm whether any of the shelters are in outbreak status. Nor have Toronto officials presented a plan to respond to an outbreak in a shelter.

Toronto police and security forces clear out a homeless people encampment in Trinity Bellwoods Park, Canada.

Is this best Toronto can do?

“We’ve done as much as we can, and continue to push for more to make shelters as safe as possible from COVID-19,” said Tanner. 

But his claim rings hollow. Many of the initiatives McNally and other advocates are calling for have yet to be tried by the City of Toronto.

These include big-picture options, like implementing an eviction ban on rental units, and appropriating empty buildings and converting them to affordable housing. 

Another alternative would be to provide services like garbage disposal and clean water to homeless encampments, as is done in San Francisco. In that city, a heated debate on whether encampments are a blight or a best-case response to the collision of crises resulted in city officials being forced to provide the camps with basic services. 

Toronto has not purchased hotels and turned them into affordable housing, as has been done in Vancouver, and in Massachusetts. City officials announced in August that they do intend to purchase the Bond Hotel, but current residents will be evicted while it is converted into affordable housing and will not be prioritized for permanent apartments once it is ready.

In the absence of more effective implementation of the shelter hotels, vast amounts of money were misspent. The city’s Auditor General found shelter hotel owners over-billed the city by nearly $15-million ($13.2-million plus taxes).

For their part, shelter and hotel shelter residents in Toronto are already making contingency plans.

“I miss my park and I go back every week if I can and I spend most of my time outside of this space,” said Jewell in a telephone interview. “Honestly, my plan is just going back to the park because that’s where I’m safe, there’s not really any affordable housing and for me I need something that’s wheelchair-accessible.”

Gru says he will not return to a congregate shelter for the long term, no matter what. 

“Realistically at this point I will end up in a park just to keep the issue visible,” he said. “And that will probably lead to further criminalization, further drama.”

For his part, Eschbach says the congregate shelter he’s in now compares favorably to the church basement in which he was packed with 66 other men before he went to the Comfort Inn in 2020. 

“There seems to be more of an even keel here than a psychotic keel,” he said, though he has begun taking high doses of THC on top of his regular pain and anxiety medications to cope with disturbed sleep in the new space.

“This shelter I’m in has more heroin or crack than any other shelter I’ve been in,” he said, but there is no overdose prevention site in the shelter. He tells me a woman is walking around in her underwear and a shirt while we speak on the phone, and laments the loss of privacy that has come with this move. 

Like Jewell, who has been on a waiting list for a wheelchair-accessible permanent unit for close to twenty years, Eschbach has been waiting for a permanent spot in a seniors’ building since he turned sixty during the pandemic. Before that, he spent a decade waiting for permanent housing while living in shelters. He’s cautiously hopeful that his current housing worker might help him move into suitable permanent space later this summer. 

“I didn’t think I’d see a congregate shelter again,” said Eschbach, who previously swore he would die rather than return to such a space. For him, as for others who experienced a shelter hotel, the path to housing remains as mysterious as ever.

“I’ve been told that that’s the only way to get back into the hotel: to pitch a tent.”

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