Nova Scotia

How N.S. groups that work with the homeless are preparing for COVID-19

Social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak is a luxury Nova Scotians who are homeless or face precarious housing situations don't have, says a housing support worker in Halifax.

'If we don't have a safe place to support these people, it's actually kind of a wider risk'

There have been no cases of COVID-19 among Halifax's shelter community to date, said Meghan Hansford with Adsum For Women and Children. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Organizations that work with vulnerable Nova Scotians are taking precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19, such as limiting some services, as they call on the province to open dedicated sites for people who may need to self-isolate.

Social distancing during the outbreak is a luxury people who are homeless don't have, said Meghan Hansford, the housing support program manager with Adsum for Women and Children in Halifax.

"The reality is you are going to be in a shelter system where you're sharing a room with multiple other people. You're going to be getting your food sources from places like a food bank," she said.

These conditions are ripe for the spread of COVID-19, she said.

Hansford pointed to cities like Toronto, where motel rooms have been secured for people who have nowhere else to go.

"If we don't have a safe place to support these people, it's actually kind of a wider risk for the larger community," she said.

Hansford said service providers in Halifax have been meeting regularly and talking with government officials about how to prepare for the spread of the virus. Nova Scotia confirmed two more presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the total to one confirmed case and four presumptive ones.

A spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing said service providers across the province have received information from public health about how to keep people safe during COVID-19.

"Some shelters have advised that they have rented portable handwashing stations, as well as having hand sanitizers where available," the department said in an email. "We are in regular contact with homeless shelter providers across the province to offer support and to monitor the situation with respect to client-service delivery."

The department didn't say whether there are plans to open up spaces for people who need to self-isolate, but that "all options are currently being assessed."

MOSH limits appointments

To minimize the spread of COVID-19, Mobile Outreach Street Health in Halifax is limiting in-person appointments at its clinic on Gottingen Street. Staff will still be available for urgent issues that can't be addressed over the phone.

MOSH said its street outreach will continue.

The North End Community Health Centre in Halifax is also rescheduling routine appointments and advising people who think they might be infected with COVID-19 to call 811.

Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, which serves hot meals in Halifax, Bridgewater and Truro, will be serving bagged lunches at the door beginning Tuesday.

Hansford said Adsum remains open, is screening clients over the phone and asking whether they've travelled recently, if they have any symptoms or been in contact with someone who has symptoms.

Clients are being directed to the appropriate health services, but no one will be denied service, she said.

"If the health services are telling us they need to kind of self-isolate, where do you go if you are homeless?" Hansford said. "So we're not going to be denying people those services, so we'll still be bringing them in and trying to work as best we can in these circumstances."

Adsum has 16 beds and, like many of the shelters in the city, has been at capacity for years, said Hansford. She said rooms at the shelter have been rearranged so that people can try to be the recommended six feet (1.8 metres) apart.

Adsum has also closed its kitchen to clients, and staff are now preparing and serving meals. The organization's clothing room has also closed for now and people in need of clothing are being asked to call ahead.

A staff member has been brought in to make sure safety measures like proper handwashing are followed, said Hansford.

Looking for donations

Hansford said Adsum is working to make sure people in need can still access services.

"We might just have to continually rethink about how that's done in a safe way, but we don't want to leave vulnerable people without the things that they need," she said.

She said what's needed now are supplies.

Adsum is looking for people to donate hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of at least 60 per cent. People can call 902-423-4443 or drop donations off at 2421 Brunswick Street.

Souls Harbour, meanwhile, is asking for donations of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, Lysol, Clorox wipes, soap and lunch supplies. The organization says people can drop off supplies at any of its locations across the province.


With files from CBC's Mainstreet