FirstOntario Centre will become a shelter for Hamilton's homeless during COVID-19

The city of Hamilton is transforming a downtown venue into a shelter for homeless people during COVID-19.

Shelters struggle to maintain physical distancing measures

The city of Hamilton is transforming FirstOntario Centre into a "surge" space for those who are homeless during COVID-19. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Hamilton's FirstOntario Centre will open as a "surge" homeless shelter during COVID-19. 

Fifty cots will be added to the venue, which is anticipated to open April 11, announced Paul Johnson, the city's emergency operations director, during the city's virtual town hall Wednesday evening. The added space will help crowded shelters that are finding it difficult to have people maintain physical distancing measures — specifically a separation of two metres. 

"We've been trying to find ways to keep them safe, to keep workers in shelters safe and to provide additional services," Johnson said, adding that on any given night up to 400 people access a shelter. 

At this time, it's unclear how many staff will be needed to operate the temporary shelter, though the Good Shepherd Centre will be staffing and managing the location. The city has said it will be fully funding the initiative, but Johnson couldn't put an exact price-tag on it, saying it depends on how long it runs for. 

He added that the city has received $10 million in funding from the provincial and federal governments and been able to invest $2.5 million more a month towards supporting the homeless population during COVID-19. 

Other initiatives to support the local homeless population include portable washrooms and hygiene stations have been set up at York and Bay and many drop-in homlessness agencies have extended their hours of operation. 

"All of these measures are (us) trying our very best to try to figure out how to ensure that we have the best chance of stopping the spread of COVID-19 among homeless populations," Johnson said. 

Three men's emergency shelters — Good Shepherd Centre, Mission Services and the Salvation Army — will operate at a reduced capacity and any overflow from these will stay at FirstOntario Centre.

The venue has 19,000 seats and a field size of about 17,000 square feet. 

The space will stay open until at least May 25. 

In addition to this, Johnson said the city has hundreds of hotel rooms across the city, with 46 people currently occupying rooms — including many women and families. 


Jennifer La Grassa


Jennifer La Grassa is a videojournalist at CBC Windsor. She is particularly interested in reporting on healthcare stories. Have a news tip? Email jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca