Saskatchewan

'No more options': Government housing needed for Saskatoon homeless during COVID-19 says coalition

A coalition in Saskatoon made up of more than 50 agencies says it continues to face barriers in getting housing for people who need it amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

'Saying that they can sit in a dorm with 30 other people as self-isolation is a joke': Jason Mercredi

A person sleeps on an Ottawa park bench during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

A coalition in Saskatoon made up of more than 50 agencies says it continues to face barriers in getting housing for people who need it amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a release, one worker at the Saskatoon Inter-agency Response to COVID-19 said that in the last three weeks, they had seen more than 60 people come into several community service hubs looking for a place to self-isolate. 

"We're running out of housing options," Jason Mercredi, executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, said in an interview. "We've basically exhausted the private stock ... we basically have no more options for where to put people."

AIDS Saskatoon is part of the inter-agency response. Many of the people they work with experience homelessness, and Mercredi said many of these people have compromised immune systems as well.

350 vacancies, 10 units available

Last month, Social Services Minister Paul Merriman said that 350 vacancies exist in social housing. Currently, the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation is preparing 10 units in Saskatoon to "address housing pressures" and said the units should be ready early this week. 

"This includes arranging for furnishings and other necessities ... We encourage individuals and families in housing need to call Saskatoon Housing Authority for more information," a statement from Dianne Baird, executive director, Housing Network, Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, said.  

When asked if more units would be made available, Baird said over email that the 10 units are a pilot project. 

"Any expansion of the pilot will be based on feedback received from committee participants, the capacity of community partners to support to their clients once they are housed, and an assessment of complementary services," Baird's statement said. 

Jason Mercredi, the executive director of AIDS Saskatoon, at the needle exchange office on 33rd Street in 2018. (Alicia Bridges/CBC)

Mercredi said he was under the impression after Merriman's announcement that the 350 vacant units in Saskatoon would be made available to them to use. The news that there would be only ten units available was a surprise. 

Mercredi said government housing is a necessity now. The landlords they work with don't have any space left, and he said shelters are not a good option, even though they're doing the best they can with what they have.

"We should be trying to create conditions where people can self-isolate, and saying that they can sit in a dorm with 30 other people as self-isolation is a joke," he said.

Earlier this week, the Saskatchewan Health Authority quietly started setting up a new COVID-19 testing site. It hasn't been disclosing where its other sites are, and this one is no different. But the new location is in the core neighbourhood, where there is already a new community services hub set up for vulnerable people. This new testing spot is a little different from the others. Jason Mercredi has been pushing for it He is the head of AIDS Saskatoon and the team lead for the community services hub. He spoke with Saskatoon Morning's Heather Morrison. 7:15

Risk of spreading among homeless

Mercredi said he's worried the virus will spread rapidly in the homeless population. It could spread for weeks without anyone knowing, and then they'd just be playing catch-up from then on out, he said.

There's anywhere between 350 and 400 people experiencing homelessness in Saskatoon at any given time, Mercredi said, but that number could be up because of people being released from jail with "no support plan", which Mercredi said basically means they're being released into homelessness.

"If you think contact tracing is hard for the general public, what do you do when you're trying to do it with the homeless population where they don't know the people in the environments they were in and they can't tell you every place they've been at?" he said.

"Without housing these folks, we could be reversing all the good work that's happened so far in the province."

About the Author

Emily Pasiuk

Reporter/Associate Producer

Emily Pasiuk is a Regina-based reporter for CBC Saskatchewan and an associate producer for The Morning Edition. She has filmed two documentaries, reported at CTV Saskatoon and written for Global Regina. Reach her at emily.pasiuk@cbc.ca.

With files from Alicia Bridges

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