Nova Scotia

CBRM agencies rally to help homeless through COVID crisis

The COVID crisis is hampering access to basic services for people who live on the street in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

'There's this whole underbelly of the community that people would rather not hear about but it's real life'

The Ally Centre in downtown Sydney, N.S., serves people with mental health, addiction and homelessness issues. (Holly Conners/CBC)

The COVID crisis is hampering access to basic services for people who live on the street in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

The closure of places such as libraries and soup kitchens means many people are being left out in the cold, said Janet Bickerton, who co-ordinates health services for the Ally Centre of Cape Breton.

The centre is a non-profit organization in Sydney N.S., that serves people with mental health, addiction and homelessness issues.

"There's really kind of nothing, very little, for people who would normally access agencies, places ... to get a drink of water, get out of the cold," she said. "We've seen people going up the street with a toilet paper roll literally figuring out where they're going to go to the bathroom. It's that basic."

The Ally Centre continues to offer its needle-exchange program, and to hand out some food, but the services are now being provided at the doorstep. Its drop-in program is suspended.

While it is allowing clients to come in one at a time to use the washroom, not everybody on the street makes use of the Ally Centre, said Bickerton.

Reduced Internet access

For people who have phones, access to the Internet is another issue.

"Usually they would be picking up the signals from businesses and other sites," said Bickerton. "But they're not getting access to the internet because there's none on."

That's contributing to the challenge people on the street face when it comes to access to information.

While the messages about physical distancing might still be getting through, that's often just not possible for people who are homeless.

"People are still probably gathering in apartments, and spaces communally," she said. "Sex workers are probably still involved in sex work and people are still looking for that. So there's this whole underbelly of the community that people would rather not hear about but it's real life out there. And it's very challenging."

The fact that it's a high-risk population, with most people already immunocompromised, makes it challenging for the people whose work — under normal circumstances — is to provide safe spaces.

"It's kind of breaking people's hearts, for sure."

Looking for solutions

The Ally Centre is working with other local agencies, including the Community Homeless Shelter, Transition House, Elizabeth Fry Society and Loaves and Fishes, to identify issues and work with governments toward solutions.

"We need firstly some very basic things happening," said Bickerton. "We need access to portable toilets in our communities, so people can at least go to the bathroom, with wash stations so they can sanitize."

She said the group would like to establish sites in each community that people can access, one at a time, to have a shower, to wash their clothes and to get a cup of tea.

CBRM also needs a plan for when people in the local shelter community start to get sick, said Bickerton, noting other regions are using hotel and motel rooms or school gymnasiums for overflow beds.

"So there's ways we can do this, but we need the resources and some action quickly," she said.

"As the cases go up, this population is at risk, and not everybody has somewhere to be."

MORE TOP STORIES

About the Author

Holly Conners is a reporter and current affairs producer who has been with CBC Cape Breton since 1998. Contact her at holly.conners@cbc.ca.

now