'Sleepless nights': A team of workers will hit Hamilton streets to help the homeless

A street team are hitting downtown Hamilton Tuesday afternoon to reach out to the homeless and intravenous drug users, a group it says is quickly being left behind in COVID-19 plans.

The team has also been searching in vain for hand sanitizer for clients and volunteers

Tim O'Shea, shown in 2017 with Dr. Christian Kraeker, says some people are being left out in COVID-19 plans. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A street team are hitting downtown Hamilton Tuesday afternoon to reach out to the homeless and intravenous drug users, a group it says is quickly being left behind in COVID-19 plans.

Keeping Six, an organization that acts as a voice for people who use drugs, will join local street doctors and other workers to talk to street-involved drug users about their needs during the pandemic. They'll also distribute food and unused needles, says co-ordinator Lisa Nussey, a local midwife.

They would also hand out hand sanitizer — if they had any.

Nussey says as businesses and libraries close, people on the streets have fewer places to go to sit, to keep warm and to wash their hands. The group will make a list of what people need and advocate for them with government and community agencies.

"It's becoming very clear to us very quickly that the folks that we work with are going to be literally left out in the cold by these measures," Nussey said. 

"You can't leave people to fend for themselves if you have a public health strategy."

Closures have swept governments and businesses this week because of COVID-19. Hamilton has 10 cases so far, while Canada has 324.

Local closures include city recreation centres, Hamilton Public Library branches, arenas, museums and community halls.

"The public library is a really important place for our people because it's one of the last places in the world you can be without paying for something," Nussey said.

She understands the closures, but when they happen, "there needs to be counter measures to support these things."

Paul Johnson, the city's general manager of healthy and safe communities, says the city is opening three isolation sites in the lower city using existing recreation centres. They will operate by referral only, so people should use the shelter system as they usually do.

Running out of hand sanitizer

Tim O'Shea, one of the founding doctors of the Hamilton Social Medicine Active Response Team (HamSmart), joined the group Tuesday. HamSmart focuses on isolated and street-involved patients. O'Shea has regular drop-in clinics at the AIDS Network, and visits patients at home. 

O'Shea said he's trying to connect with as many patients as possible by phone. He's also visiting some at home with "more attention to infection control." He, too, is running out of hand sanitizer.

O'Shea said he's particularly worried about opioid-addicted patients who have to go to pharmacies every day for methadone or Suboxone.

"I don't have an answer for what we're going to do right now," he said. 

'Desperate for donations'

Wesley Urban Ministries is working on how to add more distance between people using the day centre, which is a drop-in space for people with low incomes. Executive director Don Seymour said the centre is giving people food in takeout containers.

"It's all happening so fast," Seymour said. "This shifts every hour."

"A lot of us are having sleepless nights worrying about people."

Seymour said Wesley is "desperate for donations," whether it be perishable food, cash or hand sanitizer. The agency is even looking at how to make its own hand sanitizer, but that requires rubbing alcohol, which is sold out too.

"We have some," he said. "We have ordered as much as we can get. Like everybody else, we have a shortage … If we can't get more within a week or two we're going to be in trouble."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca