The homeless community has been enduring numerous hardships during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has caused a number of new government rules and regulations. There are key rules to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic: physical/social distancing, self-isolation, proper hand washing and wearing appropriate gloves and masks. However, these basic rules are difficult for people struggling with homelessness as they are a community that already face issues in seeking basic needs such as food, shelter, as well as medical care and support.
One challenge facing the homeless is inadequate housing because it places individuals at risk of contracting and spreading the virus since their ability to self-isolate and wash their hands is limited. If you don’t have a place with a door and a roof, it becomes difficult to even follow the directions of the premier and chief public health officer to keep safe. Additionally, common places to find shelter and a bathroom such as libraries, gyms, fast food restaurants are now closed.
Despite shelters across Canada remaining open, people experiencing homelessness do not have their own sleeping space or bathroom, which are areas where the virus could potentially spread. To overcome this obstacle and ensure social distancing measures are followed, shelters have decreased their number of occupants. However, this comes with a price as Luke Theissen, communications manager of Christian humanitarian organization Siloam Mission, states, “We’ve segmented our community, which is an unfortunate reality, where we have the 110 people who stay in our shelter each night, those are the ones we’re allowing inside our drop-in so we can reduce their exposure to anyone else but there are those who don’t stay with us but still need meals.” Although the provincial government announced funding for 140 beds of capacity to address the need for isolation, some individuals are not accepted and often end up on the streets.
Moreover, as grocery stores and restaurants are being shut down, shelters’ food programs have also changed dramatically. Instead of offering meals in the facility for 500 people a day, they have begun offering a bagged lunch to maintain social distancing protocols. This has introduced new issues for companies like Siloam, including the cost of bulk paper bags and more bread for sandwiches. These materials are usually funded by major fundraising and food collection events that require public gatherings.
Another obstacle is the possibility that if COVID-19 spreads among the homeless community, it could have greater devastating effects compared to the general population. Rick Lees, the executive director for the Main Street Project, stated that much of the homeless community is immunocompromised and are more susceptible to flues, colds, and viruses. Hence, there may be a faster spread of the virus than in the general population and a much higher death rate and complexity of the illness. This would require far more hospitalization and medical resources. Moreover, getting information to the community is an obstacle since most homeless individuals do not have access to technology or Wi-Fi. It is difficult to raise awareness and to educate this vulnerable community about preventative measures and places to seek help or refuge. Furthermore, public health officials have experienced some difficulty in reaching out to patients who are homeless after they have been screened for COVID-19. While most people can expect a call after they get tested in Montreal, most homeless people do not have a phone so public health officials have no way to reach them.
Efforts, however, have been made to accommodate the homeless community by the government and hospitals. To cope with the reduced number of beds in regular shelters for physical distancing rules, two new shelters in Montreal have been developed. One resides at Bonsecour Market in Old Montreal. It has a capacity of 50 beds. Another resides at the Jean-Claude Malepart Centre in the Centre Sudborough with 60 beds. Toronto’s public health agency has also secured more than 1200 spaces at 12 hotels, and 11 new facilities have been mobilized with more than 470 spaces to allow for physical distancing. These hotels also help isolate newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients.
However, some advocates believe that this isn’t enough. For instance, as Montreal has approximately 3000 people who are homeless and Toronto has 9200 people who are homeless, these shelters and hotels may not fully accommodate everyone, and may leave out others who eventually aggregate to the unsafe streets. In the news, a homeless man who tested positive for COVID-19 was left to wander Montreal streets after screening, and was not given a designated area to isolate. Systems need to be put into place not only to provide housing for everyone, but also provide means of isolation for those who display mild symptoms associated with COVID-19, those who are being tested, and those who have been diagnosed.
During these difficult times, it is important that vulnerable communities are provided with protective gear and resources such as gloves, masks, food and shelter to ensure that they are able to protect themselves against the virus like everyone else. Although hospitals and governments are trying to accommodate the homeless community, there are still many gaps that need to be addressed. The most important of these gaps is providing more housing for these communities by either providing more shelters or reserving hotels, as well as having systems in place to accommodate newly diagnosed patients. This will ensure that this vulnerable population will, at the very least, be able to follow the basic rules of self-isolation.
Additionally, it is also important, during this difficult time, to stay informed, educate others on how to prevent the spread, take preventive actions to keep a safe environment and spread awareness. This should be done by making sure pamphlets regarding resources are handed out, giving free access to Wi-Fi in shelters and hotels, and requiring patients to provide contact information so that public health officials can contact them after screening. Moving forward, homeless service providers should collaborate, share information and review emergency plans with the community leaders and local Public Health Authorities (PHAs) to ensure measures are in place to help protect the clients and to identify areas that need accommodations. Such accommodations includes providing more food and shelter for those who have symptoms associated with COVID-19, those who are awaiting results and those who have been diagnosed. Also, additional support should be offered to maintain the mental well being of this vulnerable community. This includes providing specialist services, such as mental health services, as well as drug and addictions support and programming.
Image Source: Common Dreams