Saskatoon advocate says province hasn't delivered COVID-19 housing, dozens with symptoms on street

The woman co-leading efforts to aid vulnerable people in Saskatoon during the COVID-19 pandemic says the province has not delivered on a promise to provide housing for people who are showing symptoms and need to self-isolate.

Incident Command of multi-agency group working with City of Saskatoon says 30 people turned away

A Saskatoon advocate says the province has not followed through on a promise to provide housing to vulnerable people showing symptoms of COVID-19. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The woman co-leading efforts to aid vulnerable people in Saskatoon during the COVID-19 pandemic says the province has not delivered on a promise to provide housing for people who are showing symptoms and need to self-isolate.

Colleen Christopherson-Cote is the incident commander for the Safe Community Action Alliance, a coalition of 35 community organizations in Saskatoon working closely with the city. She said dozens of people showing symptoms and looking for housing have been turned away.

 "If they are symptomatic they cannot seek that shelter at the hub or in the shelter system where do people go who have no shelter and it's cold? They go to things that are open," Christopherson-Cote said. "And what is currently open? Grocery stores, bank vestibules, those places where people who are not homeless go to get essential service."

On March 31, Minister of Social Services Paul Merriman announced the province would arrange hotel or single-unit accommodation for homeless people with COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate. 

Christopherson-Cote said that process is not working.  

She said Monday that, in the past two weeks, 30 people with COVID-19 symptoms have been turned away from a city hub set up to provide social support services during the pandemic. Some of those incidents came after the province announced its response.

Christopherson-Cote said people are not allowed to stay at shelters if they have symptoms.

"Anecdotally those folks are on the street, living with relatives, crashing in trap houses, rough sleeping," she said.

A COVID-19 testing site was opened in downtown Saskatoon Monday, but Christopherson-Cote said many people had already been turned away by the services hub before the testing site opened.

Ministry says it is providing accommodation

Jeff Redekop, executive director of income assistance service delivery at the Ministry of Social Services, said the ministry is providing accommodation as promised.

"If a client is required by public health to self-isolate due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, symptoms or exposure, that person will be transitioned to safe accommodation where they can do so," said Redekop. 

When Merriman announced the provincial pandemic response last week, he said there were 1,700 unoccupied Saskatchewan Housing Corporation units in larger communities and another 1,200 in smaller communities that could be used to house people who need to self-isolate. 

He also announced one-time additional funding of $171,000 for some emergency shelters to help with financial pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Redekop said the process to access those housing units or hotels is the same as it was before the pandemic, with some adjustments. 

"We ask them to call their local housing authority for more information on how to apply," he said.  

"Saskatchewan Housing Corporation has reduced the amount of documentation housing authorities are required to obtain, such as landlord references, before they are able to approve applications from prospective tenants."

He said the ministry does not have updated numbers about how many people have accessed hotels or social housing.

Social Services Minister Paul Merriman announced the ministry's pandemic response on March 31. (CBC)

Christopherson-Cote said she is aware of some cases where people had been sent to hotels, but "dozens" have not.

She said word of mouth has already travelled about the new testing site, so she expects most people experiencing symptoms will go there instead of shelters, meaning workers at shelters may be less likely to be exposed.  

The downtown testing site is staffed by workers from the Saskatchewan Health Authority.  

Christopherson-Cote said anyone who tests positive and does not need to be hospitalized will have nowhere to go to self-isolate unless the province is ready to put them in hotels or other accommodation.

"They're acting as if it's business as usual, [using] an economic lens to putting people in social services. And this is a public health crisis," she said. 

She said other provinces are performing better in their support of vulnerable people, citing a $60 million pot of funding set aside by the Alberta government for social supports, including $30 million for homeless and women's shelters. 

"Our province just doesn't seem to understand that," she said.

Christopherson-Cote said community groups and non-profit organizations are ready to launch "wraparound" support for people self-isolating in temporary accommodation, but that they cannot begin until the procedure is confirmed by the Ministry of Social Services. 

Any gaps to be filled quickly: Premier

CBC raised complaints about the process with Premier Scott Moe on Monday.

He said he was not aware that it was not operating as outlined in last week's announcement. 

"The Minister of Social Services has been in direct contact with the shelter operators to ensure that if there are any gaps they're being filled and they're being filled very quickly," said Moe. 

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark said last week he was concerned about the "level of sophistication and effectiveness" of the approach to supporting vulnerable people during the pandemic. 

"There are gaps that remain that we need to tackle," the mayor said. 

"If some of the people who are homeless in our community end up with COVID-19, end up going into shelters or into hospitals or into homes that are unsafe in the community — and that starts to spread — it could overwhelm our health system and create a huge challenge that we do not want to see right now."

About the Author

Alicia Bridges is a former CBC Saskatoon reporter who is now working in Australia.