Whitehorse Emergency Shelter tightens measures in midst of COVID-19 outbreak

The shelter has locked its front doors and is only allowing people in when they need to access services after an outbreak was declared at the facility on Sunday.

Advocate says outbreak illustrates need for safe, permanent housing

A person walks in front of the doors of a Whitehorse shelter.
A person walks past the front doors of the Whitehorse Emergency Shelter. Measures have been tightened at the facility following a COVID-19 outbreak. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Whitehorse Emergency Shelter is limiting building access and doubling down on public health measures after Yukon's chief medical officer of health declared a COVID-19 outbreak at the downtown facility on June 27. 

Acting program manager Jayme Curtis confirmed to the CBC on June 28 that he was aware of 15 confirmed cases associated with the shelter, including one staff member. 

Shelter guests who have tested positive are all now self-isolating either at the shelter, which has several contained apartment units, at the Coast High Country Inn hotel or in their own homes, Curtis said.

The shelter has also locked its front doors, with staff, who have "enhanced" personal protective equipment, only letting people in when they need to access services. Meals are also being handed out to-go, and COVID-19 testing is being offered on-site. 

"We're doing what we can to make sure that it's safe," Curtis said. 

He added that the shelter had taken safety measures even before the outbreak, including having a screener at the front door to assess guests for COVID-19 symptoms, providing masks and hand sanitizer for everyone, and reducing drop-in hours in an effort to lower the number of people in and around the shelter. 

Even with the new restrictions, Curtis said the shelter is continuing to offer services including access to showers, overnight beds and supports for people who are self-isolating. 

'Pretty scary time for people who are homeless'

Kate Mechan, the executive director of the Safe at Home Society, told the CBC that the organization, which provides assistance to vulnerable and under-housed people, was "quite concerned" about the outbreak. 

In particular, she said there was a worry for vulnerable people with underlying or chronic health conditions, and also for NGOs and their staff as they try to keep safe without creating barriers for people trying to access supports and services. 

"It's a pretty scary time for people who are homeless," she said. 

Mechan added that it was important to approach the news of the outbreak with compassion and understanding, noting that while people may have been given advice such as avoiding sharing cigarettes and beverages and refraining from gathering, "we have to be realistic about what people face on a day-to-day basis." 

"Ultimately, this outbreak just really rings true how important the need for permanent housing is," she said. 

"I mean, people can't social distance, people can't isolate or quarantine if they don't have access to a home to be in, and a lot of times, people are crashing at their friends' places, kind of couch surfing, and that's another route of spread… Housing is our front line defence against COVID and it's the solution to homelessness... so now is the time to to get people housed." 

Based on interviews by Mike Rudyk