Hamilton's homeless shelters grappling with dozens of cases of COVID-19

Staffing, shelter space, and a lack of housing have all been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus has infected 44 shelter clients and staff across 7 outbreaks since Feb. 10.

Hamilton's homeless community is dealing with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks in the second wave of the virus. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton's shelter system held off large COVID-19 outbreaks for almost a year, but the relentless virus has now infected 44 people across Hamilton's shelters in the last three weeks.

Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, says it shouldn't be seen as a failure of the system.

"The longer this pandemic went on, the more it was possible. And we've seen cases in the shelter system throughout this. We've been able to catch them though before and isolate, and now the volume has gone up a bit," he said on Monday.

The virus has infected 44 clients and staff across seven outbreaks since Feb. 10.

The outbreak at the Salvation Army in the city's core makes up 26 of those cases. Of those, 24 are clients and two are staff members. The infected clients are staying in isolation areas.

COVID-19 has also seeped into the Good Shepherd Men's Centre, the temporary overflow shelter at the former Cathedral Boys School, Carole Anne's Place, the Wesley Urban Ministries Day Centre and Mission Services Men's Centre.

"Staffing is always an area that's impacted, especially when a couple of our staff members have tested positive," Salvation Army spokesperson Glenn Van Gulik said.

"Staffing is strained. It is difficult to make sure we've got enough staff on a regular basis. That said, to date we have been able to do that."

44 infections in 22 days

Calls to bolster local shelters came late last year as the second wave of COVID-19 grew during the winter. Shelter space was tight, staffing was stretched, all while the people who rely on both are far more likely to die if diagnosed with the virus.

"Our sector has been very lucky until now," Wendy Kennelly, Mission Services associate executive director, said.

"When the numbers were at their peak, it's sort of interesting that our population wasn't impacted," said Wendy Kennelly, Mission Services associate executive director. "But I think it was probably wishful thinking on our part to assume they weren't going to be at some point."

Across the system, Johnson said, staffing is tight, but not critically low.

Van Gulik said the city has helped relieve Salvation Army staffing issues and supplied pre-packaged food to reduce the amount of handling. Johnson said the catering contract also allowed for people working in the kitchen to take on other roles.

Don Seymour, executive director of Wesley Urban Ministries, said staff having to enter isolation because of community transmission has been a factor affecting shelters. At one point, the day centre had to close for four hours because of a lack of staff, he said.

"We could be paying people more. Hiring is a constant process in our system because the wages are not the same as other professions," he said.

"The one thing about the outbreak we've been able to see is how it has exposed the wage gap in various sectors."

The day centre has two clients and one worker with COVID-19.

Accessing shelter services during the pandemic

Unlike the Salvation Army, which isn't accepting new clients right now, the day centre is still operating as a drop-in centre which provides meals, showers, healthcare and housing support for people.

"Our main concern was, 'Are they going to shut us down?' which they weren't," Seymour said. "They understand the purpose of the day centre. It's a place of last resort."

"The one thing we've been able to do with a lot of people ... we've been able to house a number of people."

Finding housing has been vital given how shelters have struggled to find space for clients.

Some can't access the system, Seymour said, because of mental illness, fear of shelters or being banned because of the complexities of their behaviour. In some cases, he said, it can be hard to have people self-isolate.

Seymour said space in the shelter system has been an issue, noting that the city's isolation centre at the Bennetto Community Centre hasn't been able to operate at maximum capacity due to a lack of staff. That said, he thinks it will be at full capacity by Thursday.

But people who can't get into the shelters and are waiting outside in the cold are still getting meals too, Seymour said.

Johnson said there is currently enough shelter space for everyone who needs it. Shelter space in local hotels has also increased, he said.

Lack of supportive housing is a core issue, he said, and he hopes the pandemic will spur more action.

"We don't think shelters are solution to homelessness," he said.

Staff at the FirstOntario Centre previously set up beds for homeless men using the arena as a shelter amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The shelter is now at the former Cathedral Boys School. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Kennelly said while she doesn't have a crystal ball to predict the future, she's hopeful the outbreaks will not continue to grow. The Mission Services Men's Centre has two clients with COVID-19 while the Inasmuch House has four infected clients and two infected staff.

"Our first outbreak we had at the men's centre was over within the timeframe we anticipated. The clients went to the isolation space. We had four staff who tested positive. They all returned to work within 10 to 14 days ... we're all working closely with public health."

While the local shelter system and public health are battling outbreaks together, Seymour said he hopes people experiencing homelessness will be prioritized for vaccination, given new COVID-19 variants are spreading.

"That's the worrisome part for us ... this is an extremely vulnerable population that needs support."