‘We have to be there’: How Ontario’s shelters are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis

As the coronavirus spreads, homeless shelters across the province are facing an unprecedented strain on resources
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Mar 19, 2020
The Salvation Army operates 2,000 shelter beds at 20 locations across the province. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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At the YES Shelter for Youth and Families, in Peterborough, the stock of cleaning and sanitization supplies is diminishing. The pantry is being emptied faster than it can be restocked. Self-isolation is practically impossible for residents.

“I think people are really nervous,” says Meagan Hennekam, the shelter’s executive director. “We can’t stop operating or it will impact our community negatively.”

In addition to the emergency shelter, YES supports hundreds of others in the community through its food and clothing cupboard and a supportive-housing program for youth. Hennekam says that food supplies are depleting quickly — and that the shelter is running out of space at a time when public-health officials are urging social distancing. “Our emergency shelter is over capacity,” she says. “We have no isolation space, because everyone is in shared rooms.”

The problem is not limited to Peterborough. As the province and its residents intensify efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, homeless shelters are facing an unprecedented strain on resources.

A spokesperson for the Salvation Army, which operates 2,000 shelter beds at 20 locations across the province, says that the organization is “greatly concerned” for the people it serves and its 4,000 staff in Ontario.

“Some of the people that use the shelter’s social services might have weakened immune systems,” says spokesperson Rob Kerr. “They’re people who are going to be most vulnerable. We want to protect them. At the same time, we want to protect our staff. We don’t want to spread the virus.”

Kerr says that all Salvation Army shelters are operating under pandemic protocols. Whenever possible, shelters are trying to prevent groups and crowds from forming. Shelters with dining halls are giving people bag lunches. (So far, there has not been a reported case of COVID-19 at an Ontario homeless shelter.)

Transition House, Cobourg’s only emergency shelter for adults, has limited entry to a handful of times throughout the day. Executive director Anne Newman says it’s increased capacity from 22 to 24 beds. Individuals are screened and sanitized upon arrival. “We don’t want anyone getting infected,” she says. “If we lose staff, I would maybe consider reducing daytime hours. But I’m not looking to close. That’s the last thing I want to do.”

Staff are being urged to ramp up handwashing, Newman says, adding that employees already have relevant training: “We’re practising universal precautions all the time. There is a part of this work that is health care. So this is not new for us.”

In Kingston, programs are struggling under the resource strain. “We will need ongoing supplies, particularly food and cleaning products,” Ruth Woodman, executive director of Kingston Youth Shelter, told TVO.org via email. “We have some supplies, but, as you can imagine, we go through items very quickly.”

Some help is on the way. The federal government announced that $157.5 million of its $87 billion aid package would, through the Reaching Home initiative, go to supporting people experiencing homelessness. (A further $50 million will support women’s shelters and sexual-assault centres, including those on-reserve.)

Woodman said that money will “certainly be needed” as the full impact of COVID-19 becomes more apparent.

In the short term, Kerr says, shelters will need donations in order to continue providing adequate services. “We are now learning that, in some of the places where we serve, other food banks are not able to keep operating, which is resulting in more people coming to the Salvation Army for assistance,” says Kerr. “At the same time, we are starting to see a decline in the donations coming in to our food banks.”

Kerr says that the coming weeks will test the systems we have in place to shelter and protect people who may not have the ability to stock up or self-isolate right now: “We can’t close our doors and go home. We have to be there.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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