Makeshift homeless shelter in FirstOntario Centre welcomes first guests

The city of Hamilton, along with Good Shepherd and Core Entertainment, have transformed the FirstOntario Centre into a shelter for homeless men.

The shelter will care for 50 men, but has room for 75 in case of a surge

The rink at FirstOntario Centre is normally host to the Hamilton Bulldogs or other entertainment, but now it is part of the newest shelter for Hamilton's homeless men during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The FirstOntario Centre has hosted rock stars and Hamilton Bulldogs hockey players, but on Saturday evening, it welcomed its first wave of homeless men looking for shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A place for entertainment is now a place of refuge.

The former Copps Coliseum has been transformed into a makeshift shelter for men, complete with a medical room, isolation room, dinner space, beds and recreational activities.

Brian Kreps, program manager of social housing from the city's housing services division, told CBC News the 17,000-square-foot venue will help reduce the demand at the other three shelters for men (Good Shepherd Centre, Mission Services and the Salvation Army).

"The big thing is about being prepared for the needs of this particular vulnerable population," he said.

"What we're trying to be prepared for is, once we're really up and functioning, folks will be residing here."

The city said 50 homeless men will be able to sleep inside the FirstOntario Centre and there's space for an additional 25 in case of a surge. Most other shelter beds are set up in a dormitory style. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The 24/7 space includes 50 cots in the former showcase area, where drapes separate some of the beds, unlike the dormitory style in most shelters. The FirstOntario Centre can accommodate an additional 25 men in case of a surge.

"The hope is we wouldn't need to go above 50 ... hopefully we don't hit that number for a while," Kreps said.

"We'll just have to see how demand goes."

About 15 men will be in the shelter by Saturday night and that number will double to roughly 30 men by Sunday night — already occupying more than half of the space. The arena has 19,000 seats, but none of them will be used.

"Just from an operational perspective, it's so much easier to have everyone on one level," Kreps explained, adding there's no plan to open another shelter space for men right now.

Each table in the FirstOntario Centre only has two chairs, to maximize physical distancing. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The men in the new makeshift shelter, some of whom could be as young as 16, will get three meals a day, served individually. The dining tables occupy half of the ice rink and only have two seats each to comply with physical distancing measures. The other half of the rink is barren.

"We're leaving this to be flexible space," Kreps said.

"At different times, we may be broadcasting a movie on the big screen, we may be able to get some social distance appropriate games out here."

The FirstOntario Centre media room has been transformed into a medical room to screen men staying in the arena for COVID-19 symptoms. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Men will get to use the locker rooms to shower and some can go outside to smoke a cigarette. 

Good Shepherd staff will assist others with dependance and health issues, with one room in the arena devoted to medications, including naloxone.

Kreps said many within the local homeless population have other underlying health problems that could make them more susceptible to COVID-19, which made finding another space for men a priority.

Brian Kreps, program manager of social housing from the city's housing services division, told CBC News the FirstOntario Centre is meant to prevent the other three shelters for men from running out of space. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"They will be screened on a daily basis so if someone has been here for three days ... if they have a cough that is new, that would be a referral," he said.

Anyone who does show signs of infection will need to stay in a separate locker room — called the isolation room — before being sent to hospital for evaluation.

The Good Shepherd Centre will be staffing and managing the shelter with three case managers. Five security guards and staff from Core Entertainment's Spectra, who manage the venue, will also be in the building daily.

"The city of Hamilton is contracting with Good Shepherd to operate the shelter in a city-owned facility managed by Spectra and I have to say, while that might sound complicated, it has actually worked incredibly well because we've had the resources of each of those different parties to make this happen," Kreps said.

"This came together in a week."

Staff at the FirstOntario Centre prepare beds for homeless men using the arena as a shelter amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

While setting up for the first wave of people at 6 p.m., many staff did not wear personal protective equipment, but Kreps said they have PPE on hand.

"The advice right now is the appropriate distance is six feet and if you're maintaining your distance, that is most appropriate [measure]," he said.

"There is some concern if you overuse PPE then you can become overly confident and forget about all the basic practices that are important like the hand-washing and social distancing."

The FirstOntario Centre is barren as it transforms into a shelter for homeless men during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Kreps said the city also has yet to finalize how it would respond to an outbreak inside of the FirstOntario Centre.

To date, Kreps said one person has tested positive for the virus in the shelter network.

As of Saturday at 9 a.m., Hamilton has 232 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six deaths linked to the virus.

One in four cases are attributed to community spread.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

With files from Jennifer La Grassa