More beds needed to protect homeless from COVID-19, shelters say

Ottawa’s homeless shelters are overcrowded, and operators say more needs to be done to properly protect their clients from COVID-19. 

City says it's looking at certain options

Ottawa shelter operators say it's hard to keep people distanced when buildings are at capacity. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Ottawa's homeless shelters are overcrowded, and operators say that to properly protect their clients from COVID-19, they need more beds. 

The city has already allocated $1.65 million to 50 agencies to cover expenses related to COVID-19, like cleaning supplies and additional staffing, and opened an isolation centre at the Routhier Community Centre in March. 

But shelter operators like Deirdre Freiheit say additional sleeping spaces are what's really needed.

"It's a massive challenge," said Freiheit, CEO at Shepherds of Good Hope. 

"It's almost impossible for people who are homeless — and who are utilising shelters that are crowded — to social distance." 

The Shepherds of Good Hope has decided to move its food line outdoors in order to keep people the proper distance apart. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

'Highlighted the housing crisis'

Freiheit said the shelter is trying its best to ensure its users keep the proper distance apart while in their sleeping quarters, but when they're at capacity, it's tough.

She said the shelter's food line has been moved outside to better separate people, and staff are educating clients on the importance of the measures.

An additional problem, Freiheit said, is the fact that programs at the shelters have been shut down, so people have nowhere else to go during the day. 

"We need to find space to take the pressure off the shelters, to be able to bring down the numbers in the shelters," she said.

"The only way that people can isolate properly is if they have a home, and that's the problem that we have here. This has really highlighted the housing crisis in the city."

Peter Tilley, executive director with the Ottawa Mission, says there's only so much his shelter can do given all such institutions in the city are overcrowded. (Laurie Fagan/CBC )

Ottawa Mission in same boat

The situation is much the same at the Ottawa Mission, where they've also moved their food line outdoors.

"We had 13 people down on our chapel room floor on mats [Thursday] night. And that is not a safe environment," said Tilley. 

"We're hoping to find some solution soon, because there's only so much we can do. But we're still putting ourselves at risk because shelters in Ottawa everywhere are overcrowded. "

The Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa wrote an open letter to Mayor Jim Watson and city council last week, asking for a solution.

One suggestion was for the city to purchase hotels for COVID-19 housing that could later be converted into a longer-term housing solution.

Several options being looked at

The city is looking at several options, said Shelley VanBuskirk, director of the city's housing, community and social services department.

"Options that have been explored include hotels/motels and other facilities, such as recreation facilities," VanBuskirk said in an email.

"To date, 70 families within the current family shelter system have been moved to alternate locations."

About the Author

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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