Homelessness brings extra COVID-19 challenges to an already vulnerable population

Stay at home, self-isolate and limit your contacts: All common directives from public health officials during the pandemic, but they’re easier said than done for people experiencing homelessness.

“This is a challenge at all times. Income is a major determinant of health,” chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday.

Roussin says officials are looking at getting rapid testing for more vulnerable people, and they are expanding isolation centres for people who have nowhere to go if they are required to isolate.

Read more: More homeless camps popping up in Winnipeg as others get torn down

On Wednesday, Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa said a new 140-bed isolation facility was set to open at the end of the week. There is another 39-bed shelter that’s currently at capacity and another 40-bed shelter that’s also nearing capacity, she said.

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“The opening of an additional 140 spaces speaks to the growing need in the community for safe and private spaces to isolate,” said Kris Clemens, spokesperson for End Homelessness Winnipeg.

“But I think the fact that we need to open these individualized units for isolation and quarantine really speaks to the ultimate need of housing for people and the fact that we have hundreds of people in our community who can’t follow the basic public health order to stay home because they don’t have one.

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“It’s a situation that points out quite boldly that housing is health care.”

The closure of other facilities like malls, recreation centres and libraries is also posing a challenge and creating fewer places for people to turn to.

“I think the biggest challenge of COVID-19 for people experiencing homelessness is that so much that they rely on has gone away,” 1JustCity executive director Tessa Whitecloud said.

Read more: Winnipeg pilot project to deter homeless camps cancelled, councillors say they weren’t informed

“They rely on libraries for warmth, they rely on Portage Place mall to use the washroom, and so the everyday dignity of going to the bathroom or washing your hands are now an even larger challenge.”

Public health orders and physical distancing measures also mean shelters and other organizations are dealing with fewer volunteers, making day-to-day operations more challenging, said Whitecloud.

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“We normally have anywhere from 25 to 70 people volunteering in a day and right now we have anywhere from seven to 12, for physical distancing,” she said.

Some shelters are also concerned about managing an increased demand once the temperature drops.

“We’ve always been overcapacity in winter, and that’s always been a concern and of course this year it would be even more tragic and difficult if we get to that point,” Siloam Mission communications manager Luke Thiessen said.

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This is normally the time of year when many non-profits do most of the fundraising, but the pandemic will hinder that this year, he added.

“For us, one of the big question marks is the holiday season is a big fundraising season for organizations like us — the bulk of our fundraising comes in the last month of the year,” he said.

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“And while there are many people who are impacted financially by the pandemic that leaves us with some questions and worries about whether we’ll make budget this year and how the rest of the fiscal year will look.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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