British Columbia

Many shelters, drop-in centres struggle with social distancing but vow to keep offering services

Social distancing is proving difficult for many shelters and drop-in centres in B.C. striving to keep homeless and vulnerable people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While precautionary measures are being taken, facilities see dozens of people congregate for free food, bed

'When you have 40 people sharing a communal living situation with beds in a large space, it's virtually impossible to actually practise any kind of social isolation,' said Karen Mason, acting manager for the Welcome Inn shelter in Kelowna. (Photo by Jason Siebenga)

Social distancing is proving difficult for many shelters and drop-in centres in B.C. striving to keep homeless and vulnerable people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations are in frequent use and facilities are cleaned often, social distancing and limiting the size of groups — measures recommended by health officials across the world to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes the disease — is challenging for services that can see dozens of people show up every day for free meals or to sleep in a shared space.

It's raising concerns over what might happen should someone attending a shelter or drop-in be tested positive for COVID-19.

"When you have 40 people sharing a communal living situation with beds in a large space, it's virtually impossible to actually practise any kind of social isolation," said Karen Mason, acting manager for the Welcome Inn shelter in Kelowna, B.C. 

"Certainly, we do our best. We make sure that the beds are a certain distance apart from each other."

As of Monday, the province is asking British Columbians not to have gatherings of over 50 people.

Mason says staff at the Welcome Inn, an emergency winter shelter that opened in early January and closing at the end of the month, are following protocols provided by B.C. Housing and Interior Health, as well as "stringent sanitation measures."

They are also keeping a close eye on anyone who shows any symptoms of COVID-19. 

"It's almost like there isn't much more we could do," said Mason.

Social distancing is very difficult to practise in shelters that have beds in communal spaces, like Kelowna's Gospel Mission. (Dominika Lirette/CBC)

70 men in 1 small building

On the other side of downtown, Randy Benson, executive director of Kelowna's Gospel Mission shelter, said it has a pandemic plan in place. 

This includes increased cleaning, the addition of a hand-washing station at the front entrance and signs with information about the virus. 

However, the shelter, too, struggles with enforcing social distancing when there are approximately 70 men registered as guests in a small two-storey building.

Starting Wednesday, it will only provide essential services — food and shelter — to registered guests, and will work with the Salvation Army to provide food for non-registered guests.

"We're trying to cut back on the number of people that actually come to the Mission without hurting our service to the other people that depend on us," Benson said.

Positive test is 'worst case scenario'

A guest testing positive for COVID-19 would be the "worst case scenario," said Benson.

"In a situation like ours where we have a large dormitory with that many beds, it's very hard to self-isolate," he said, adding that the shelter has only a few spots where someone could be isolated.

"Those are some of the issues that we're going to have to answer as they arise."

In a statement to CBC, B.C. Housing said it is working hard to protect people working in shelters and those who rely on their services.

"Should staff or a shelter guest test positive for COVID-19, operators would follow public health isolation protocols and work closely with the local health authority to support staff and guests they may have come in contact with, including providing a space to safely quarantine themselves," the statement said.

'We just cannot starve people'

Challenges with social distancing vary from shelter to shelter. At the Emerald Centre in Kamloops, for example, it would be easier to isolate people because the facility has 13 separate rooms.

"We don't intend to shut down. I mean, our populations are really vulnerable and the shelter service is one of the required needs," said Alfred Achoba, operations manager for the CMHA, which oversees the shelter.

Shelters across the province echo that determination to stay open whenever possible.

For Bernie Goold, president of St. Vincent de Paul Society in Prince George, keeping the meal drop-in centre open is crucial.

"We just cannot starve people. They just don't have other places or other choices to go to," she said.

The centre, which serves breakfast, lunch and evening sandwiches, can see up to 180 people a day. To try to keep numbers down, it has added a third lunchtime serving and is only allowing in 50 people at a time. In between servings, staff and volunteers sterilize all of the surfaces.

If necessary, the society will consider changing its model to take-out only.

"As long as we are blessed to be able to get the volunteers and keep our staff safe, [we will] continue to feed them as long as we possibly can," Goold said.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

With files from Brady Strachan

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