Staffing in Hamilton shelter spaces is 'stretched to capacity' and risks slowing expansion

The city wants to add more shelter spaces, but who will work at them?

City hopes to add more space as winter weather approaches

In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city used the FirstOntario Centre as a shelter for houseless men. Now, shelter space in Hamilton is almost full and the system is dealing with staffing issues. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The staffing in Hamilton's shelter system is "stretched to capacity," local officials say, and that risks future plans to expand the city's shelter spaces.

Dr. Kerry Beal, lead physician of the Shelter Health Network, said staffing in existing spaces is running low and there aren't enough people to fill in any incoming spaces.

"When the situation first started back in March and April and we opened the isolation space at the FirstOntario Centre, that was staffed by city staff that weren't working," she said. "All of those city staff have gone back to their jobs, so we don't have any supply of additional staff."

"It's not that the money couldn't be found to pay for staff. It's that the staff can't be found to pay the money to."

Edward John, the city's housing services director, confirmed staffing is a challenge, "particularly as we look to expand the system further." But it 's unclear exactly how severe the constraints are.

"We continue to engage our partners and look for solutions to assist with the ongoing commitments and pressures," John said in a statement Friday.

Bags sit near Ferguson Avenue after an encampment there was dismantled. Hamilton's shelter system is poised to expand, but is looking for people to help fill the incoming positions. (Samantha Craggs/CBC Hamilton)

The city is looking to add shelter space as the temperature drops. Beal said the staffing issues in existing spaces are because people have to stay home as they await test results for COVID-19, or are isolating after being a close contact to someone outside of the shelter system.

"It means there are relative staff shortages and people are working a lot longer hours than they normally would."

"They're all over-worked, under-paid."

Shelter space 'close to capacity'

"Shelters across the system are fairly close to capacity with the exception of youth shelters, which are sitting at about 50 per cent," said city spokesperson Aisling Higgins.

The number of beds in the local men's and women's systems have grown considerably during the pandemic. The men's system grew from 194 beds before the pandemic to 262 beds (which also serve couples in hotels). The women's system more than doubled from 46 beds to 101. There are also 16 youth beds, and 80 family beds with hotel overflow as needed.

Beal said six retirement homes that are getting their licenses revoked has also put pressure on the system because residents from these homes end up using shelter space.

Despite all this, there are still vacancies, but Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, says anyone who is still living out of the shelter system has chosen to do so for a variety of their own reasons.

Masking hard to enforce inside shelters

Beal said another challenge shelters are facing has to do with masks — residents won't wear them.

"We don't seem to be successful in getting these guys to wear masks at all ... as much as possible, you suggest it ... but it's like herding cats."

Despite this, there have only been five COVID-19 cases in Hamilton's shelter system. There hasn't been a single outbreak.

Beal said the city has done a good job of making the shelters as safe as possible.

It can be a challenge given most of the shelter spaces are share living spaces (otherwise known as congregate living settings).

Johnson said some spaces could see six people sleeping in a room together, but this wouldn't be close-quarters, bunk-bed style.

Still, "it's a traditional shelter system" but, Johnson says, "it's still safer than being on the streets. It offers people a lot more than a tent. Food is provided, professional staff are there and all of the safety precautions for COVID are there."

"Do congregate settings carry a little more risk than being completely on your own? Yeah, but that is completely on your own," he said. 

"Not interacting with people in a hallway, not interacting outside as well. Private rooms, though helpful in one case, are only a protection in its purest form and people don't interact in other places as well."

An underground encampment in Hamilton's east end shows how some people experiencing homelessness in the city are living. The water is dark and ankle deep in the abandoned building. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The main precautions in the shelter system, according to Johnson, include: 

  • Distancing between beds.
  • Screening any time someone enters the shelter.
  • A testing system that allows quick results.
  • An isolation shelter for anyone who has COVID-19 (transportation provided).
  • Staggered meal times.
  • Mandatory masking indoors.
  • Extra cleaning and personal protective equipment measures.

While the shelter system has grown and still has some space, there have been calls from "defund the police" demonstrators for more free, affordable permanent housing.

Johnson said the city also wants more affordable housing, and acknowledges the shelter system alone is not an answer to homelessness. But the city has said it has no plans to defund police.

Learning from the pandemic

Johnson said the city needs money from higher levels of government.

"That's why we were so aggressive in looking at projects under the rapid housing initiative [from the federal government], and have submitted more than our allotment in hopes that in the second stream of money, we can get more than the 45 units we can build with the $10.8 million that was allocated to Hamilton," Johnson said.

"[Our team] were asking housing providers, 'provide us with your housing ideas,' even when we didn't have direct funding because we wanted to be ready ... we have projects that are ready to go and we're going to be excited to get some of those units online."

Beal hopes more can be done when the COVID-19 era ends.

"We're all hoping coming out of the other end of this pandemic, having identified issues that have been in the system for many, many years, that maybe some changes can be made," Beal said.


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.