'A major issue': Edmonton homeless at serious risk amid COVID-19, advocates say
'What we need is someplace to isolate people who are homeless and living on the street'
Edmonton advocates are calling on the government to establish COVID-19 quarantine options for the city's homeless population as public health officials look to limit the spread of the virus in Alberta.
As of Monday afternoon, people experiencing homelessness who show symptoms or test positive for COVID-19 had no dedicated space to self-isolate in Edmonton.
"It's a major issue," said Elliott Tanti, a communications and development manager with Boyle Street Community Services, which operates a large downtown drop-in centre.
"We are in conversations with [Alberta Health Services] and articulating that fear to them. Right now, what we need is someplace to isolate people who are homeless and living on the street."
The appeal to government and health officials comes as drop-in centres took new measures on Monday to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Boyle Street and Bissell Centre say they will only allow 50 clients in their downtown drop-in centres at a time. Boyle Street can typically accommodate up to 300 clients at a time, while Bissell has space for around 125 people.
If a client arrives at Boyle Street with a fever or other related symptoms, they are given a mask and pulled aside to a dedicated isolation space for follow-up assessment. A nurse then makes the decision whether to refer the client for a COVID-19 test with Alberta Health Services.
But after that, the client may have no place to quarantine.
"Right now, there doesn't seem to be any resource at all should someone test positive for COVID[-19] in the inner city," Tanti said.
'A test of what we're capable of'
At a news conference Monday, Mayor Don Iveson said city facilities shuttered by COVID-19 could be re-purposed on an interim basis to support roughly 1,900 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton during the pandemic. City-run facilities, from recreation centres to libraries, are closed indefinitely.
"We don't have anything specific to announce today, other than our continued commitment to work on that issue with the agencies on the frontlines," Iveson said.
"Overlaying the urgent crisis of COVID on the long-standing crisis of homelessness, I think this will be a test of what we're capable of as a community and a province."
The lack of support is of particular concern given the heightened COVID-19 risk facing the homeless community, says Dr. Louis Francescutti, professor at the University of Alberta's school of public health.
He says public health guidelines — such as social distancing — are next to useless for people in crowded shelters or with inconsistent access to basic hygiene, such as soap and water. The homeless population has a higher rate of chronic illness and is more susceptible to respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19, compared to the general public.
"I think the biggest question is, do we, as a society, have what it takes to respond appropriately? And if not, then let's not pretend that we're caring individuals," said Francescutti, who also works as an emergency room physician at the Royal Alexandra hospital.
Advocates say hotels and prefabricated homes — in the style of workcamps — could serve as potential quarantine options. But Dr. Francescutti said the sites would also need to provide other services, like social workers to mental health supports.
"The crisis is before us. It's time to move. It's time to measure how effective we are and maybe use this crisis to eliminate homelessness," he said.
The Alberta government has been working with its partners to develop a list of health guidelines to help shelters further prepare for the pandemic, said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.
"We are looking at the options available to government with respect to how we can help support people in these circumstances, but no decisions have been made at this time," she said at Monday's daily COVID-19 update.