When Breshna Kayoumi steps inside her Toronto apartment, she takes pains to spray herself down with an antiseptic, to clean away any germs she could carry in from the outside world.
She crosses the doorway and lands immediately in a living space that her family of seven juggles as a place for online school work, for sharing meals and for their four-year-old to play. There aren’t many other options; Kayoumi, her husband and their five kids have spent the last year-plus of the pandemic stuffed together in the three-bedroom unit.
“It’s just not enough,” she said.
Like Kayoumi, hundreds of thousands of Canadian households live in too-small homes, and as governments have asked people to stay at home in light of COVID-19, they’ve faced the pandemic in spaces that barely contain them — and increase their risk of virus spread.
Across Canada, nearly 750,000 households reported living in overcrowded homes in 2018, more than a third of which were in Toronto.
Through daytime hours, Kayoumi, her husband, their four- and 10-year-old boys and three girls — age 18 to 21 — negotiate the limited space. If the older kids have video classes or tests, Kayoumi tries to keep the toddler quiet and occupied. If someone wants to shower, they ask the whole family if it’s OK, with one bathroom to split between them.
At night, Kayoumi settles into the living room to get some rest, letting her husband take their room as he battles stomach issues. Their kids divvy up the beds and bunks in the other two rooms, or carve out space in the living room alongside her.
She thinks, sometimes, about what would happen if someone in the household caught COVID-19, and how they’d be able to isolate from one another.
“We share the bedrooms because we have no choice,” Kayoumi said.
She and her family live in a Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) building among the highrises of St. James Town. For roughly five years, she says they’ve been asking for more space. But in a city where demand for social housing vastly outstrips how much is available, they were still waiting when COVID-19 hit.
In TCHC, 154 households have asked to move because of crowding. Since other situations get more priority — like moving someone from a too-large unit — the agency suggests those households also rejoin the general wait-list, in case it’s faster. Through that list, the city currently warns of decade-plus waits for anything bigger than a one-bedroom.
And issues with crowding extend well beyond social housing, with tenants in the private market also cramming into too-small homes to make rent. Like other disadvantages, overcrowding hits certain areas harder than others — including the city’s northwest and North St. James Town.
Like essential workers and those in multi-generational homes, Ontario data has shown that COVID-19 has exacted a disproportionate toll on overcrowded households, as shared rooms and cramped spaces provide fertile ground for viruses to race through entire families.
Vered Kakzanov, a family doctor working in the northwest, recently expressed frustration with being unable to improve her patients’ living conditions, to protect them from the virus.
“A lot of my patients have 10, 12 people in a household with a two-bedroom apartment, so isolating from the rest of the family hasn’t been realistic,” she said.
If someone in their household contracted COVID-19, Kayoumi has thought about whether some of them could stay with a cousin. But they were far away, and had their own family to think about, she said.
She worries about people wandering unmasked through their building, coughing into the hallway air — but says she doesn’t complain for fear of igniting conflict.
During COVID-19, public health has set up an isolation hotel for anyone who needs it. But some residents of overcrowded housing have hesitated to use them, said Ravi Subramaniam, who heads up a local gathering space in St. James Town called Community Corner.
Especially when the isolation site first opened, Subramaniam said some people hesitated to use it, out of concern that their landlords would discover that more people were living in one unit than were allowed under their lease. They feared it would put their housing in jeopardy.
He worries about the lasting impacts of enduring the pandemic in too-small housing — from the toll on mental health to the effects of kids trying to learn online in crowded rooms. Every moment they are distracted by noise or others around them puts them a step behind, he said.
In a nearby building, Wida Safi is also living in an overcrowded apartment. Four of her daughters share one room, while she, her husband and their other three kids split another.
They’ve been waiting for a subsidized unit, Safi said; for now, this was all they could afford. They pay their bills with disability payments since her husband was in a car accident years back.
“Sometimes I imagine if corona comes, what should I do?” she said, noting that she’d try to care for everyone at home, isolate whoever was sick, and clean common spaces carefully.
Safi knows living in a too-small unit for the last year has taken its toll on her kids, noting that they fought more since they’ve been cloistered at home.
Before COVID-19, they could always do school work at the library, but that wasn’t an option anymore. “I always feel bad for my kids. I wish I could do something for them,” she said. “They really, really need big rooms, separate rooms.”
Kayoumi is also feeling the loss of libraries. Her kids relied on them, too — now, when faced with tests or zoom classes, they hunker down in whichever room or hallway space is available.
Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine for the University Health Network, sees neighbourhoods like St. James Town as an illustration of how the pandemic has hit Toronto unequally. “There’s a concentration of poverty in St. James Town, versus looking over the street into leafy Rosedale,” he said.
Where poverty clusters, so does overcrowding, he said. “This is not a deficiency in the people and the community — there’s the sort of resilience that no one can imagine,” said Boozary. “But it’s constantly batting back, pushing back against poverty and systemic discrimination.”
He pointed specifically to inequalities in vaccine access: while just 14.1 per cent of residents in the postal code covering St. James Town had their first shot by April 5, 26.1 per cent received theirs in the neighbouring postal code covering Rosedale — despite recent case rates in North St. James Town being more than double than reported for next-door Rosedale-Moore Park.
“That,” Boozary said, “is the tale of the two pandemics.”
Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star