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Homeless shelter in Ottawa
Ottawa shelters have experienced some difficulties during lockdown. Image: Georgiana Ghitau/Fulcrum

Ottawa shelters have stopped taking in new admissions

On Jan. 8, Quebec’s provincial government imposed a curfew on the province preventing civilians from leaving their homes anytime from 8 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

Grocery stores and convenience stores now close at 7:30 p.m. so shoppers can return home on time, while pharmacies and gas stations are exempt and stay open beyond the restricted times. The border between Ontario and Quebec remains open where the rules also apply to visitors. People who violate curfew face fines between $1,000 to $6,000.

There are a few exceptions to the curfew which includes going out to walk your dog in a kilometre radius from your residence, people that require medication and workers that are required to do overtime. However, in the original list of exceptions, the Quebec government failed to account for the homeless population. 

Despite the calls to exempt the homeless from the curfew, the province refused. It was not until Jan. 26 when Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse ruled homeless exempt from the curfew. The ruling was made after a group of legal aid lawyers for homeless clients showed that their safety and lives were in danger due to the curfew.

Despite Ontario deciding not to implement a curfew of their own, there are a number of additional challenges for the homeless population during the pandemic. 

In Ottawa in particular, homeless shelters face major outbreaks and have limited space to social distance, especially in the winter months.

The four emergency shelters in Ottawa, Shepherds of Good Hope, the Salvation Army’s Booth Centre, the Ottawa Mission and the Cornerstone Housing for Women, have halted new admissions ever since the outbreak.

As reported by the Ottawa Citizen, 65 residents and 10 staff members at one of the city’s homeless shelters, which is unnamed for privacy reasons, have tested positive for COVID-19. 

A reason for these outbreaks according to Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health, is because it is difficult to physically distance people due to the cold weather.

Many shelters placed their own precautions to alleviate the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks within their facilities. Cornerstone, a women’s shelter in Ottawa, were able to accommodate the homeless and allow them to live in a safe environment with enough space.

“To prevent a COVID-19 case from occurring, our new shelter location is at Friel [street]. The residents at Friel are able to get their own rooms which gives them space of their own and be socially distanced,” said Peter Crawley, building manager of Cornerstone.

“The residents’ safety is a priority as much as the staff’s. We have a sign-in sheet, a bunch of hand sanitizers around and the residents know when to tell us when something is wrong.”

The Young Men’s Shelter also has its own set of precautions and challenges.

“There are four units of our transitional housing where we have an isolation centre which is blocked off from the rest. It runs on its own where it is important for people that have been tested positive,” said staff member Taryn Walsworth.

“Some challenges were working with the long-term care homes to explain the PPE or personal protective equipment and that it is expected when they come into the shelter. All the staff have to do PPE training and we are about to do another refresher.”

Despite the circumstances, organizations such as the Ottawa Mission have enhanced their cleaning procedures to minimize the risk of infection within the shelters. The shelter is only open to the staff, scheduled volunteers and residents where visits to the hospice are suspended. 

As a result of the changes,  client services, client educational programs and other client social activities are not available until further notice. Regardless of the regulations in place, The Ottawa Mission is still accepting donations of food to be dropped off to the shelter.

Aside from the facilities themselves placing precautions, the Ottawa Inner City Health, an organization that provides health care to homeless populations in the city, is helping the shelters when they can. The organization, which is affiliated with the University of Ottawa, performs tests when it is possible for residents and staff on site.

As of Feb. 3, two Ottawa homeless shelters are accepting new residents again: The Ottawa Mission on Waller Street and Cornerstone Housing for Women. There are hopes for other shelters to start accepting those that would need homes during the COVID pandemic.