Volunteers step up to help Brandon's Samaritan House distribute hampers after COVID-19 outbreak

The executive director of Samaritan House in Brandon says volunteers have stepped up to make sure people who need food hampers get them after a COVID-19 scare forced the organization to close.

Food bank, homeless shelter closed last week after outbreak was declared

Samaritan House is the largest food bank in Brandon, Man. It has temporarily closed following a COVID-19 outbreak. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The executive director of Samaritan House in Brandon says volunteers have stepped up to make sure people who need food hampers get them after a COVID-19 scare forced the southwestern Manitoba organization to close.

Barbara McNish says she can't go into details about what happened or how many clients and staff were affected by the outbreak, but said the food bank closed last Thursday. Samaritan House's Safe and Warm Shelter closed two days later, and was also moved to red, or critical, level of the province's pandemic response system. 

That meant it couldn't distribute food hampers and nutrition hampers for families with school-age children, or provide shelter for the city's homeless population.

But McNish said some services were restored Monday.

"We came up with some amazing volunteers with the help of Sobeys West and Safeway," who were able to help distribute hampers in the parking lot of the Pacific Avenue facility Monday afternoon.

"We just didn't have the staff to do that," she said, with staff who regularly work at the facility at home isolating, waiting to get a COVID-19 test or for test results.

Executive director Barbara McNish says she's grateful for the support Samaritan House has had from the community. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"We are working very closely, particularly with Sobeys West, who are able to get those hampers packed for us and we have volunteers picking them up and bringing them to our food bank location," said McNish. 

Samaritan House was informed of the outbreak last Wednesday evening, and acted quickly to get alternate plans in place, she said.

"It's just really important to feed our families."

Volunteers handed out 99 hampers on Monday — more than the average of 80 per day. McNish said people who missed their hamper pickup last Thursday and Friday can pick them up anytime this week. 

Volunteers are also on site between 6:30 and 8 every night making sure the city's homeless find a safe place to stay in light of the shelter's temporary closure, she said.

A transit bus parked outside Brandon's Samaritan House on Tuesday evening. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"Everybody is working with us to help us to keep our homeless population as safe as possible," said McNish. "We are looking at options for them, and the city is also on board to come up with a plan." 

The city has a homeless population of around 170, McNish said — 12 to 18 of whom sleep in the shelter on a nightly basis. Samaritan House is working with multiple agencies to find places for those people to sleep.

"It's a community effort. It always has been and it always will be," she said. 

The food bank and shelter will remain closed until Jan. 20, she said, adding she and the staff are eager to get back to work.

For now, she says she appreciates the help they've had.

"Our community of Brandon has been amazing," she said. "They have always been amazing. 

"Our donors, our volunteers, our staff ... we don't do this alone. We've never done this work alone. It's always been with an amazing community." 

With files from Sam Samson