COVID-19 poses a serious health threat to people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness puts people at high risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelters are an ideal environment for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. More than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness every year.

Recruitment starts soon for the COVENANT study, which will provide critical information on how big a problem SARS-CoV-2 is within Toronto’s homeless population (the largest homeless population in Canada) as well as how much and where it spreads. The Government of Canada is investing $1.9 million through Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) for this research project, led by Dr. Stephen Hwang of Unity Health Toronto, which will provide invaluable evidence to guide public health interventions across the country aimed at preventing COVID-19 in this high-risk and disadvantaged population.

Over the next year, researchers will regularly check in with approximately 700 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. They will test for both current and past infection at each visit. Researchers will also ask about participants’ COVID-19 symptoms and any interactions with the health care and shelter system in order to accurately track the number of new infections and further our understanding of potential risk factors among the homeless population. Data will also be used to build a computer simulation model that is able to make projections of transmission of COVID-19 in this population and can evaluate the potential impact of interventions aimed at reducing transmission.

The study aims to inform better public health measures, which could include repeated screening of the homeless population (rather than one-time screening), creation of smaller shelter facilities, and housing high-risk individuals in hotels. The overall goal? Reduce adverse health outcomes among people experiencing homelessness and alleviate the resulting impact on the health care system.

This study will focus on the Toronto homeless population, and its results, methods, and recommendations will be of use to inform health policy and other research in cities across Canada.

Media interviews available:

Dr. Stephen Hwang, the study’s lead researcher and Director, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto, who is one of the world’s most renowned researchers in homelessness, housing and health and is available for interviews.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, COVID-19 Immunity Task Force Co-Chair, is available for interviews. She can give a high-level perspective of the importance of this study on a national level and where it fits within the Task Force’s strategy.

The funding for this study was announced in early September at the same time as 21 other studies were awarded funding. It was peer reviewed through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Competition and is funded by the CITF. Link to initial news release:


COVID-19 Immunity Task Force
Rebecca Burns, Cell: +1.438.871.8763
Caroline Phaneuf, Cell: +1.514.444.4532

Unity Health Toronto (Dr. Hwang)

Hayley Mick or Jennifer Stranges,