Nova Scotia

Halifax homeless shelter to rent empty hotel during COVID-19

Out of the Cold emergency shelter is moving about 20 clients into an empty Halifax hotel this week, giving them private rooms where they can abide by public health orders to limit physical contact and help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Out of the Cold will move about 20 clients into private hotel rooms this week

A homeless man sleeps in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk.
Public health officials around the world are urging people to stay home. But you can't stay home if you don't have one. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Stay home.

Public health officials and politicians around the globe have been repeating the order like broken records for weeks, but you can't stay home if you don't have one.

Jeff Karabanow, co-founder of Out of the Cold emergency shelter in Halifax, said pop-up shelters in gymnasiums and community centres have alleviated some of the pandemic-related strain for homeless people, but ultimately, people need private spaces.

This week, Out of the Cold will move about 20 clients into rooms at a Halifax-area hotel, taking over an entire floor of the otherwise empty building.

If demand and resources grow, Karabanow said the hotel could potentially shelter another 60 people.

Jeff Karabanow is the co-founder of Out of the Cold emergency shelter. (Submitted by Jeff Karabanow)

Since the arrival of COVID-19, Out of the Cold and other Halifax-area shelters have moved some individuals into hotel and motel rooms — mainly people who are immunocompromised and at greater risk for severe illness. But Karabanow said Out of the Cold will be the first shelter in Nova Scotia to move all its clients into a hotel.

Karabanow said individual units afford people the kind of "dignified and safe" shelter his organization has long advocated for, but the current outbreak of COVID-19 adds further justification for governments to support this type of housing.

"It's always been a social justice argument to get people housed. Now it's also a public health argument," Karabanow said.

Why shelters are potential coronavirus hotspots

The Public Health Agency of Canada has acknowledged that people experiencing homelessness may be at greater risk of contracting the virus or developing complications.

Housing advocates across Canada have been warning that homeless shelters could become COVID-19 hotspots because of close quarters and limitations to good hygiene practices.

The coronavirus is now spreading by community transmission in Nova Scotia and there are more than 300 confirmed cases of the virus, including one death.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang has said flattening the epidemiological curve of the virus depends on widespread adoption of public health orders. He said restrictions on public movement and interaction are only effective if at least 80 per cent of Nova Scotians abide by them.

Calls for more government support

Karabanow said the effectiveness of public health orders could also depend on how much support vulnerable populations receive.

"I think the city, the province, really have to think through what is best for this population, what is best for actually the whole community, our whole citizenship around getting everybody to safe spaces so that we can beat this pandemic," he said.

Out of the Cold's move into a hotel is being supported by the federal government, which has so far committed about $157 million to homelessness relief efforts during COVID-19.

Some of that money is being directed to Out of the Cold through the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia (AHANS).

Executive director Jim Graham said the sustainability of the project is unclear, in part because it isn't clear how long the pandemic will last.

On Monday, Strang said Nova Scotia's peak could arise near the end of April, followed by an eight to 10-week period decline in cases, during which public health measures could be gradually lifted.

A doctor speaks with a homeless person about COVID-19 in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco on March 17, 2020. People experiencing homelessness may be at greater risk of contracting the virus or developing complications. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

"That's a big part of this challenge as we move forward," said Graham, "figuring out what does this cost and how long will this money last and who are the other contributors to the pot."

Sheri Lecker, executive director of Adsum for Women and Children, said she hopes the hotel shelter model will grow in Nova Scotia.

The Halifax organization has had to reduce shelter capacity by 25 per cent because of COVID-19, and she said capacity is likely to experience more strain as the pandemic continues.

"With everyone now confined and money tighter and space tighter, it's possible that some of the [housing] arrangements people had are breaking down," she said.