TORONTO — COVID-19 could soon “explode” within Toronto’s homeless population as government actions to curb the spread of the illness have the opposite effect on those who live without housing, advocates and front-line workers say.

People who work with the city’s homeless say more are on the streets because many drop-in and respite sites have closed, while others must limit their numbers inside. Meanwhile, clients cannot practise safe social distancing inside those sites, nor can they easily go the bathroom or wash their hands because many food banks, restaurants and coffee shops have shut.

“If anything, the attempt to social-distance the general population is worsening the situation for people experiencing homelessness,” said Dr. Ritika Goel, a family physician who works with people experiencing homelessness.

“We’re putting people’s health at further risk.”

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Downtown Toronto, where many of the services for the homeless exist, is barren. With coffee shops and restaurants largely closed, grocery stores have become the main source of food, said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto.

But panhandling, an often necessary source of cash for many on the streets, has dried up, Cook said, making shopping at grocery stores more difficult. Furthermore, many retailers are refusing to accept cash due to fears of spreading the novel coronavirus, he said.

“The support system for the homeless has just collapsed,” Cook said.

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The effect has put more people out on the street looking for help,