Homeless shelters denying access to people with 'flu-like symptoms'
Toronto homeless shelters are turning away homeless people suspected of having the flu. Various reports confirm this alarming and ableist practice.
Street Health client Al Honen says that when he was seeking shelter last week, he was denied entry to Seaton House because staff judged him to have flu-like symptoms. They would not even give him a TTC token to get to a hospital. The Grange shelter turned him away for the same reason.
Late evening on December 21, members of DAMN2025 - a direct-action cross-disability coalition - called Seaton House and Maxwell Meighen - often the only two men’s shelters with open beds - to ask if someone who appeared to have a “bad cold” could access shelter. Both shelters said no. Seaton House staff responded, “they cannot be in the population here”, while Maxwell Meighen staff claimed their shelter was “not equipped” to serve people with the flu.
The practice flies in the face of Toronto Public Health’s (TPH) advice to shelters & drop-ins. An October 29 document circulated to front-line service providers, entitled “TPH H1N1 Advice for Shelters and Drop-Ins”, states “TPH does not recommend ... turning people with influenza symptoms away from these critical basic services.” “Most people who get H1N1 influenza will not need medical care, just a place to rest and get better.” The document offers specific measures for supporting people with H1N1 in a shelter environment.
“Denying access keeps sick people outside in the cold, where they just get sicker”, says Paul Johnson, a front-line community worker at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre. “That is completely unacceptable.”
DAMN2025 says that pushing homeless people with acute illness outdoors in potentially lethal winter weather is a violent act. This treatment could also force people to hide their illness in order to access shelter, closing the door to appropriate health supports. DAMN2025 also recognizes that many homeless folks have health conditions that could potentially appear “flu-like” in the face of pandemic fears – diagnosing a chronic cough or exhaustion as symptoms of the flu adds to a feeling of public panic.
DAMN2025 says this is part of a broader lack of accessibility in Toronto’s homeless shelters. For example, only a handful of shelters are wheelchair accessible; unsupportive staff and overcrowded, violent conditions do not provide a safe space for mental health recovery; people with substance addictions are stigmatized; the shelters are often full. Homelessness and povery already function as a threat to health and well being, and a significant portion of Toronto's homeless population are disabled; with shelters making these kind of discriminatory decisions, we can expect the mortality rate on the streets to rise.
“It is not surprising that many marginalized people are living and dying outdoors in this city, without appropriate shelter – its a consequence of segregation” says DAMN2025 member Andrew Mindszenthy
DAMN2025 demands that the City of Toronto immediately ensure that homeless shelters stop turning away sick people into the cold. People with disabilities or acute illness should be offered supports and resources according to their own self-direction and idea of wellbeing, without coercion. Poor and homeless people with the flu must be treated with respect and dignity.