Homeless and (mostly) vaccinated: Pandemic portraits from the street

COVID-19 outbreaks at shelters during the darkest days of winter made this past year especially difficult for Ottawa's homeless population. But with warmer weather coming, and now that many have received their first dose of a vaccine, there's a sense of hope.

Photographer Spencer Colby turns his lens on some of Ottawa's most vulnerable

Francois, pictured here outside the Shepherds of Good Hope on Murray Street, received his first vaccine dose in March. For him, the hardest part of this past year was how quiet the streets were, especially during the first shutdown. 'Man, there was nobody out there. But there were a few people that kept me going, so I still managed.' (Spencer Colby)

COVID-19 outbreaks at shelters during the darkest days of winter made this past year especially difficult for Ottawa's homeless population.

But with warmer weather coming, and now that many have received their first dose of a vaccine, there's a sense of hope.

"It's been a challenging year for everyone, but people experiencing homelessness face particular challenges," explained Caroline Cox of Shepherds of Good Hope.

Cox said things got especially difficult when the physical distancing centres, opened to address crowding in shelters to prevent the spread of COVID-19, also experienced outbreaks and had to turn away clients.

But since vaccination teams fanned out across the city in mid-March, they estimate 60 per cent of that population has now received a dose — closer to 90 per cent of those in supportive housing — and just one shelter is currently in outbreak.

"We're really grateful, as we're in this third wave now and the worst it's ever been, that our situation in the shelters is actually quite stable and good," said Cox.

Turning the lens on Ottawa's homeless

Photojournalist Spencer Colby checked in on clients and workers in Ottawa's homeless community.

CBC has agreed not to use last clients' names to protect them from the stigma associated with being homeless.

James contracted COVID-19 around March, which he said cost him work as a forklift operator. He's since received his first dose of a vaccine. (Spencer Colby)

James says after a tough winter, he contracted COVID-19 this spring, a month before receiving his first dose of the vaccine.

"I went over to the confinement centre, stayed there. It's pretty good over there. I felt that we didn't get a lot of information, like the nurses were a little standoffish, but other than that it was all right."

James said he lost work driving a forklift because of the illness. He said he wishes the shelters would limit access to those who are refusing vaccinations, though he acknowledges "it's hard to control in an environment like this, when you got guys that are in and out and stuff."

After receiving her first dose, Kristin was hired by by Ottawa Inner City Health to be a vaccine ambassador, telling others on Ottawa's street about the benefits of vaccination. (Spencer Colby)

Kristin said she felt worried all winter because of the risk of illness in confined spaces. She feels relieved now that she's received her first dose. 

"I feel a lot safer with the vaccine." 

She's since been hired by Ottawa Inner City Health to be a vaccine ambassador, encouraging others to get the shot.

"I got a lot of people to do it, and I think it's going to help reduce the virus because right now with everybody not being able to do their regular everyday thing, it's really difficult." 

Beth Lusk, nurse coordinator team lead with Ottawa Inner City Health, has been at the forefront of Ottawa’s vaccination program for its homeless population. (Spencer Colby)

Beth Lusk is a nurse with Ottawa Inner City Health, leading teams that administer doses to homeless clients on the street. 

"I've been trying to say to people, 'You guys have had a horrible year, this has been a really tough time for everyone. You need to have the vaccine, this is really good for you,'" she said. "'You deserve this because of all the stuff you've been through this year.'"   

Kate Peer, left, and Daniel Bailey, right, are with the grassroots group Ottawa Street Medics, which was founded in March 2020 to bring food and other supplies to those in need. (Spencer Colby)

Daniel Bailey founded Ottawa Street Medics in March 2020, a grassroots group of volunteers who support the city's homeless by delivering food, masks, socks and other supplies.

Peer and Bailey set out near Somerset Street W. to provide nonperishable items to homeless people they meet on the street. (Spencer Colby)

Though he is relieved that many in the homeless community are now receiving vaccines, Bailey said despite his work with the community, he's not considered a front-line worker and so is not yet eligible for a vaccine. 

"It would be really great to be vaccinated, especially because it's a chaotic environment on the streets," said Bailey, who said he gets a COVID-19 test every two weeks.

William says he hears a lot of hesitancy around vaccination, but he believes it will keep his community safe. (Spencer Colby)

William said while the pandemic made this winter especially tough, he was grateful for the help he received from the community.

"But the nice thing is a lady I don't even know bought me a Storm Mountain jacket so ... I was sweating all winter," he joked, adding that he also received socks, gloves and underwear from the shelter, which made winter bearable.

He said he was glad to receive the first dose of a vaccine last month.

"The idea of a vaccine is that it keeps people safer. I know there is a lot of people that think it's the mark of the beast or whatever. No, it's not. Come on guys, this is helping the community, it's keeping us safe."

Photos and interviews were collected by Spencer Colby, who was motivated to focus on Ottawa's homeless because he feels the pandemic has shone a light on systemic issues in the community. With help from CBC producer Christine Maki.


Christine Maki is a radio and digital journalist at CBC Ottawa.