With Ontario's vaccine certificate, advocates ask: how will it work for homeless people?

Housing advocates are questioning how Ontario's proof of COVID-19 vaccination system is going to work for people who don't have access to a printer, let alone a smartphone.

'I know it's for all the right reasons, but there are barriers,' says head of a Hamilton non-profit agency

Andrew Fletcher, 60, is living in a Hamilton encampment. He's concerned Ontario's proof of COVID-19 vaccination plan will make life more difficult for people experiencing homelessness. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Andrew Fletcher said he's fully-vaccinated against COVID-19, but now he's worried how he'll be able to prove it.

Ontario announced a vaccine-certificate plan on Wednesday. It's a tool meant to stop the spread of the virus and prevent future lockdowns.

The plan will require documentation to access what the province says are "high-risk" spaces such as gyms, restaurants and cinemas, making it the latest in the wave of proof-of-vaccination protocols that have been announced for facilities, workplaces and other services across Ontario cities in recent weeks. 

They are policies that Fletcher, who is staying in an encampment in Hamilton and said he's been on the street off and on for the past six years, says are going to make life difficult for people like him who experience homelessness.

"The majority of us, myself included, don't have identification at all," said Fletcher, 60. "So, how are we going to get these passports?"

It's a concern advocates share. They're questioning how the proof of vaccination system is going to work for those who don't have access to a printer, let alone a smartphone.

The "enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate" system, as the provincial government is calling it, will come into effect on Sept. 22. To start, it will require that, in order to enter certain spaces, people provide a piece of photo ID, along with a printout or PDF of vaccine receipts.

It's a requirement that immediately caught the attention of Don Seymour, executive director of Wesley, a non-profit organization which provides support for marginalized and vulnerable people in Hamilton. 

"There are a lot of complications in this," he said, following the premier's announcement Wednesday afternoon.

"For instance, you can print off your vaccine certificate. How many people have printers that are homeless?"

Then there's the added ID requirement Fletcher also flagged as an issue.

Even if someone was able to print off their certificate, they'll need to hang onto it and some form of identification, something Seymour said can be difficult for people dealing with addiction, mental health issues or living rough.

"A certificate is only as good as whether you can hang onto it or not," he said. "A lot of the folks we work with lose their ID a lot."

Brother Richard MacPhee, CEO of Good Shepherd, which also serves vulnerable people in Hamilton, said vaccine certification is something his organization has been "struggling with."

"I think it could be a major barrier," he said. "Particularly for folks that have an issue of mental health issues and are reluctant to take the vaccine."

Similar concerns have been raised by support organizations in B.C. and Quebec as those provinces have launched their own vaccine certification systems.

Restaurants a setting some people rely on

The province's vaccine certificate system targets several indoor settings where masks aren't worn all of the time, officials said during Wednesday's announcement.

Among the spaces listed is restaurants, which Seymour said could be major issue to people experiencing homelessness and rely on fast food locations such as Tim Hortons or McDonald's for access to washrooms or as a place to warm up or cool down, depending on the season.

In some cases, people are more willing to hand out gift certificates such as Tim's cards to others, rather than money, which could also present a problem if they can no longer be used, he added.

Concerns have also been raised in Quebec, as it launches its own vaccine certification system. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Back at Fletcher's encampment, he said received his second dose from a support worker who visited the encampment where he was staying about two months ago. He currently has a cellphone but says they are often stolen and believes proof of vaccination requirements will serve to further separate people like him from the rest of the public.

"How are we supposed to survive?" He asked. "There's a lot of dyed-in-the-wool street people out here too, that don't want to be part of … any program the government offers."

Seymour said Wesley and other support organizations would be willing to print out vaccination receipts for anyone who's interested, but that will only help for so long.

The biggest barrier both organizations are anticipating is the shift to the use of a QR code and a "verification app," via cellphones, which will act as proof of vaccination status as of Oct. 22, according to provincial officials.

"There's an assumption that everyone has a phone," said Seymour. "That's not true."

Province says 'alternative tools' coming

Ontario's announcement did not specifically mention people experiencing homelessness. A Frequently Asked Questions page shared Wednesday says that in the coming weeks the province will provide "alternative tools for people with no email, health card or ID."

CBC Hamilton has contacted the Ministry of Health for comment.

During the pandemic, Good Shepherd started handing out phones, particularly so people can keep track of and follow up on healthcare appointments, said MacPhee, adding he thinks a similar approach will be needed going forward.

"I think that we're going to have to figure out ways in which we can be creative in giving people who live rough … access to their medical information."

Both organizations said they'll be monitoring the impact of the provincial plan on the people they serve, and will be ready help or raise concerns with the government as needed.

"I know it's for all the right reasons," said Seymour. "But there are barriers we're going to have to help people negotiate."

With files from Lucas Powers and Adam Carter