Toronto charity offers subsidized housing near hospitals for health-care workers

TORONTO — As hospitals prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients, one Toronto non-profit is offering subsidized accommodation to health-care workers so they can avoid exposing their families to the illness.

StayWell Charity, which ordinarily helps house patients who can't afford to relocate to major cities for treatment, is now offering their services to doctors, nurses and other front-line workers.

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Jory Simpson, chief of general surgery at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said his department has already earmarked one room for his team and is prepared to book more if needed.

Simpson said the novel coronavirus outbreak hasn't reached the point where his staff have had to use the room, but he's already concerned about exposing his family as the crisis continues.

"The amount of guilt that a physician would feel in the event that they brought home an exposure and someone in their family got sick — particularly someone elderly — it would be terrible," said Jory, who said he would consider using the resource himself.

"This is what every doctor in this province is currently grappling with: the balance between providing care for their patients and making sure that their family is safe."

StayWell said it has around 1,000 apartments and hotel rooms at its disposal that could potentially house health-care workers in major cities across Canada.

Steven Argyris, a director with the charity, said a few doctors are already staying in their furnished rooms so they can be closer to hospitals and avoid putting their families at risk of infection.

"My wife is a physician and there’s a lot of chatter where doctors are concerned about being on the front lines," said Argyris. "This would give them the comfort that they need."

He said because the organization is able to procure at-cost housing that is generally used for corporate teams, the savings are large — often thousands of dollars cheaper than market rates.

Argyris said the charity is connecting with major hospitals in the Toronto region and has reached out to municipal, provincial and federal levels of government to offer their services.

A spokeswoman from Ontario's Ministry of Health said in a statement Wednesday that the province is in "active discussions" with hotels to determine whether excess rooms could be used to house patients.

"These same hotels could also be used as temporary lodging for front-line workers, either to provide more convenience or to support self-isolation," Hayley Chazan said. "These remain early discussions."

Simpson said that while his team doesn't need the rooms quite yet, there are a myriad of reasons why they could make sense in the near future.

In his own family life, Simpson said his mother-in-law isn't able to come over and see his three young children because he's considered high risk as a result of his work.

He adds that hotels aren't booking customers and Airbnb hosts may be unwilling to let high-risk people stay in their apartments.

Simpson said it's better to have the resource now so that his team isn't left scrambling if they end up needing to self-isolate.

"To know that you have this small insurance policy, where at the end of your shift where you can just pick up a key and that's where you go ... it takes one complication of this whole virus out of the equation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2020

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