Winnipeg homelessness groups create COVID-19 response team to protect high-risk population

Local non-profits that work with the city's homeless population are pulling together a plan to prevent the community spread of coronavirus.

Coalition will meet Monday to discuss possibility of opening isolation centres

Main Street Project and other shelters that work with the city's homeless population are pulling together a COVID-19 response plan to prevent community spread. (Main Street Project)

Three of the biggest homeless shelters in Winnipeg are coming together to protect one of the highest risk populations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The director of a local non-profit that works with people experiencing homelessness said the city's emergency response team reached out to them to pull together a plan for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rick Lees of Main Street Project explained his community health agency combined with Salvation Army and Siloam Mission, as well as the city, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Manitoba Public Health and other agencies met on Friday to talk about coordinating access to get clients tested, common protocols and supply checks.

Lees said they are converting the existing mobile cold-weather response van into a COVID-19 response team.

"That was one of the first things we did, and that was really productive," Lees said.

Protecting vulnerable people

Main Street Project has made some changes to better protect clients who use its programs and services.

Lees said it has closed its doors to unnecessary visits and non-essential personnel, and started screening everyone who needs to enter the building at 75 Martha St. The shelter is monitoring the roughly 78 residents who stay there on a daily basis, particularly if they are already living with other health issues.

He will consider opening additional space at the Mitchell building to make room, if needed.

On Monday, the homelessness coalition will talk about creating isolation spaces. "You know, touch wood we have not had a COVOD-19 positive test, but if we do, we'd want to have a place where we can actually isolate and then care for that person," he said.

Top of mind for him are people using IV drugs and alcohol who might be facing withdrawal issues. "If they were quarantined, we'd have to find a way to manage that," he said.

The COVID-19 response team has begun conducting assessments under the direction of an in-house nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse.

People who may be exhibiting symptoms are given a reverse-transmission mask and the agency is encouraging staff and clients to use proper social distancing, which means staying about an arm's length or more away, he said.

"We're trying to keep people in their areas and limit movement through the facility," Lees said, so clients in protective care stay at one end, mainstay residents at the other, and a 30-bed stabilization unit for men in the middle.

On-site testing

All three shelters are hoping to one day provide on-site testing, instead of sending clients off to one of four access centres.

"One of the things that I think would be very helpful would be to have that testing available more where our clients are and in the moment, as opposed to the resources we have to expend to transport clients to a testing site," Lees said.

"We understand sort of some of the panic around it, but we really are trying to tamp down the concerns," he said.

Following the Winnipeg Foundation's "unexpected surprise" announcement Friday to provide $25,000 to each of the three shelters to use in response to the pandemic, Lees said that money will be spent on backfilling staff who may need to self-isolate, purchasing supplies for cleaning, and ramping up maintenance staff and the sanitation process, he said.

"While they may not be in the mainstream... they are at the highest risk," Lees said. "We just want people to be aware of that, and help support us to make sure they're safe.

Providing basic needs

Agencies working with vulnerable populations do not have the luxury of shutting down.

Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, the executive director of 1JustCity, said her non-profit will continue providing essential services at its three locations to protect people experiencing homelessness from getting sick.

"There are no public washrooms open outside some of the institutions that are shutting down, so we want to be able to ramp up our ability to be washrooms and things like that," she said.

Although the centres will not be open for eat-in meals, they will still be providing access to toilets, sinks and soap, and handing out bagged food for hungry individuals and families at the door.