Omicron fears keep volunteers away as Winnipeg homeless shelters juggle demands of pandemic

The Omicron-driven COVID-19 wave and extreme cold has some Winnipeg homeless shelters juggling a range of weather and pandemic challenges facing staff, volunteers and those with nowhere else to go.

Lighthouse Mission, Main Street Project navigate increasing demands for services

The Lighthouse Mission building at 669 Main St. in Winnipeg hopes to open a 12-bed detox centre sometime this year to meet a rise in demand amid the pandemic. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The Omicron-driven COVID-19 wave and extreme cold has some Winnipeg homeless shelters juggling a range of weather and pandemic challenges facing staff, volunteers and those with no where else to go.

Employees and the people they serve at Main Street Project and Lighthouse Mission have been impacted by the rapid spread of the latest variant.

It's caused a drop in volunteer numbers in some cases or forced shelters to meet growing demands — including a rise in addiction issues — with fewer staff due to isolation requirements and lengthy wait times for results.

Director Peter McMullen says as demands for supports have increased during the pandemic, the mission has seen a "bottleneck" in connecting people with services.

"They'll say, 'Hey, anything you can help me with to get away from this, I am tired of this cycle,'" McMullen said. "We'll connect with local detox areas and we're looking at a five-, six-week waiting lists."

Lighthouse Mission is fundraising $2.5 million in hopes of opening a dozen detox beds, possibly sometime this year.

WATCH | Winnipeg homeless shelters struggle with rapid spread of latest variant:

Winnipeg homeless shelters juggle demands of pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 2:20
The Omicron-driven COVID-19 wave and extreme cold has some Winnipeg homeless shelters juggling a range of weather and pandemic challenges facing staff, volunteers and those with no where else to go.

The mission has seen an increase in people consuming alcohol-based hand sanitizer because it is readily accessible and cheap. It's also dangerous. 

McMullen says clients who have consumed sanitizer have been associated with at least six calls for emergency services in the past three weeks.

"There's addiction in almost everybody who comes through," McMullen said. "I myself was personally touched with addiction and I know what it's like. You become a slave to your addiction."

Volunteer, staff squeeze

The executive director of Main Street Project says the current surge hasn't seriously disrupted services there, but that could change as cases continue to rise.

"We've been kind of juggling staffing for now, but you know it's an unknown each day," said Jamil Mahmood. 

Over the holidays there were times when Main Street had to go down to a minimum staffing complement or redeploy employees to higher-need areas, though it has managed to stay open 24 hours a day for the most part, Mahmood says.

The Main Street Project outreach crew patrols the streets in the cold to connect with those who need supplies or to warm up. (Main Street Project)

As infections have soared, more volunteers for Lighthouse Mission have been opting to stay away, McMullen says. 

"They kind of want to wait for this to blow over," he said.

Their absences are felt.The shortage has forced the mission to pull paid staff into roles normally fulfilled by volunteers, McMullen says: "It affects our community, because they need to come in here every day."

Public health messaging confusion

Mahmood says changes to testing and isolation requirements, as well as the screening steps staff need to clear before returning to work, have created confusion in the shelter sector.

In the past, staff who had symptoms or were exposed to someone who was positive could get a PCR test and have the results within a day or so, he says. 

However, there have been numerous reports of people waiting over a week for results recently due to a surge in testing demand that has inundated provincial labs.

As a result, PCR tests are now reserved for a select few groups — including the homeless and the under-housed — but it isn't clear whether shelter staff qualify, Mahmood says. 

"We don't have a clear procedure to get staff back to work if they are named a contact, and then the time it takes for testing," Mahmood says.

Main Street is hoping to get clarity on that soon and whether to switch to a new standard of rapid tests for employees.

Managing capacities for now

The organization also operates 39 alternative isolation units in an apartment building it has been running since the beginning of the pandemic. The building has been full a couple times in recent weeks, Mahmood says, but there haven't been any major capacity issues there yet.

"If we see an outbreak in one of the bigger shelters or in one of the larger congregate settings there would not be enough space," Mahmood said "We're seeing shelters are really full so that's another issue, and so there's just not enough space."

Things have improved in the past several months at Lighthouse from a capacity standpoint, compared with earlier in the pandemic, McMullen says. More emergency shelter space opened in the core area, including at Lighthouse where they were able to double their capacity.

Harm reduction, food hampers

Lighthouse and other shelters have also been hit with increased needs for things such as winter clothes and emergency food hampers. Food hamper demand has more than doubled at Lighthouse since last year, McMullen says. 

What's also still lacking, Mahmood says, is enough harm reduction supports for those who use drugs.

Basic supplies are provided, such as clean needles and the opioid overdose-antidote Naloxone, but Manitoba is missing drug-screening services that could keep people from consuming something toxic or deadly.

"We don't have that, we don't have safe consumption sites, we don't have [publicly] managed alcohol programs," Mahmood said.

"We hope that we look more toward preventative health services that we can put in place to save lives versus being a reactionary system. And that's where we hope it's going and we hope that the pandemic has taught us this."



Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.

With files from Heather Wells and Lauren Donnelly