Winding down hotel homeless program could be 'devastating'

A hotel program that was a key tenet of the city of London's response to homelessness and COVID-19 stands to be wrapped up by the end of June, according to a city report.

Program brought in as an emergency measure will continue until the end of June

This temporary homeless shelter in McMahen Park gave 30 people a heated, private and safe space to sleep as well as a common area, washrooms and showers. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

A program to house vulnerable Londoners in hotels over the winter as a way limit the spread of COVID-19 could be extended past April but is likely to be wound down in June, a move one hotel resident says would be a mistake.

"Without this, I don't know where I'd be, I would probably be on the street," said Julie, who's been staying at one of two hotels the city is using to house vulnerable people deemed at risk of COVID-19 infection. She asked not to be photographed and that her last name not be used. 

Julie was renting a room in a north London house until it was sold suddenly in early March and her landlord ordered her out. Julie has a heart condition, one that would make her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 infection should she be moved to a group living situation, such as a shelter.

"They give you three meals a day, they give you a place to sleep, they help you find an apartment," she said. 

And what if the program goes away and isn't there to help others who find themselves facing homelessness? 

"That would be devastating," said Julie. "There's a lot of old people here that are older and sicker. If they get COVID, they will die." 

Julie plans to get an apartment soon and "get back on my feet, back to normal." 

The city's hotel program started last March as a way to ensure people facing challenges like Julie didn't end up in the cold with the pandemic raging. 

According to a report coming to a city council committee meeting on Tuesday, more than 900 people used the hotel program, some  who needed the space to self-isolate because they'd tested positive for COVID-19 or were deemed a high risk for contracting it. 

The program provided more than a room; it also included access to housing supports. Almost 200 of the people who used the hotel program were able to secure housing and move out. Almost all who stayed in the hotels used city resources to become "paper ready" — acquiring and updating documents and identification needed to secure an apartment lease. 

Kevin Dickins is the city's acting head of housing. He said the motel program was effective at protecting the city's most vulnerable from COVID-19, and the hope is that vaccinations will allow traditional shelters to return to normal capacity by the time it's wound down. 

"The hotels are being used as a COVID response and they were always meant to be temporary," he said. "When we get to the end of June, we'll have a better sense of what the shelter system is looking like at that time ... how successful were we and the health unit at getting as many vulnerable individuals vaccinated as possible. Those two indicators will really give us a sense of whether we need to maintain this hotel stock or if it is something we can scale down."

Program cost almost $5M

And while the report paints a picture of a program that was effective, it's also expensive. It cost $4.7 million to run through to mid-April although the expenses were covered by COVID-19 relief money from senior governments. That cost also includes some other shelter initiatives. Extending the program to June requires council approval.

Other expenses of the COVID-19 homeless prevention program are listed here: 

(City of London)

Other aspects of the city's emergency response directed at those facing homelessness also stand to be wound down.

Emergency shelters — construction portables retrofitted into one-room sleeping spaces — were placed at York Street near Colborne Street and on Elizabeth Street north of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks and next to McMahen Park. 

The Elizabeth Street site will come down at month's end, while the York Street location will stay in place until the end of June. Setting up those shelters cost just under $1.6 million, even with volunteer work from the WISH (Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness) coalition. 

City councillors will weigh in on where the COVID-19 homeless response goes next at the committee meeting on Tuesday.