COVID-19 outbreak declared at Lighthouse, Saskatoon's largest shelter

The Lighthouse Supported Living Inc., located in the city's downtown, was placed under outbreak status on Friday after two people — a client and a staff member — tested positive for COVID-19.

Long-time anti-poverty advocate Mildred Kerr called the shelter 'absolutely essential'

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been declared at the Lighthouse Supported Living Inc. in Saskatoon after a client and a staff member tested positive. (Don Somers/CBC)

An outbreak of COVID-19 has been declared at Saskatoon's largest shelter. 

The Lighthouse Supported Living Inc., located in the city's downtown, was placed under outbreak status on Friday after two people — a client and a staff member — tested positive for COVID-19.

The positive tests, which came weeks apart, have resulted in some staff at the shelter being asked to self-isolate. 

Don Windels, the shelter's executive director, said the more recent case was confirmed just a few days ago, and the shelter is taking the proper precautions to ensure the illness does not spread further.

"Saskatoon is a hot spot," said Windels. "So we are on high alert to watch for symptoms."

Windels said the shelter has been taking numerous precautions since the pandemic started and those precautions will continue in full force as a result of the outbreak.

"Because our population is quite vulnerable, some of them do have added health risks and so we definitely take it very, very seriously, and we want to make sure it doesn't spread within the shelter, or within the community as a whole." 

The initial case involved a person living at a Lighthouse residence in the community, Windels said, while the second was recorded in a staff member at the organization's downtown shelter. 

Windels said the first person to test positive at the shelter has since been cleared, and the staff member who tested positive remains in isolation. 

The outbreak causes concern both for the client and the staff member, Windels said, but support from the Ministry of Social Services and the Saskatchewan Health Authority has been helpful as it works through the process. 

He said it's his understanding the ministry, and other shelters in the city, are preparing to dispatch staff to the Lighthouse to ensure they've got the support they need while staff members self-isolate. 

He said it's important members of the public don't jump to judgment about the outbreak, saying now more than ever, those who use the shelter need a helping hand as opposed to a pointed finger. 

"Fear doesn't help any situation," he said. 

Over the last month, the number of active COVID-19 cases in the city has been climbing, with the city logging a 64 per cent increase in active cases in the last month. There were 128 active cases in Saskatoon on Oct. 23, compared to 78 cases on Sept. 23.

Windels says the pandemic has been an opportunity for shelters and provincial bodies to come together and see what could be improved, and what's working.

"What COVID showed us is that the community can come together and we can accomplish things. We can do things. We can work together and we can co-operate," he said. "I've seen a lot of good come out of this potentially negative situation."

Windels said the shelter is currently in need of monetary donations. Those looking for more information about how to donate can visit the Lighthouse website.

'Moral, ethical and logical obligation' to help

Mildred Kerr, a spokesperson for the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition, said Saturday she was sad to hear about the outbreak at the Lighthouse, which has been "absolutely essential" for the city's homeless population. 

Kerr, who has been an anti-poverty advocate in the city for decades, says now is the time to rally around the shelter to ensure it's able to overcome whatever challenges the outbreak brings.

"If we are caring Canadians … we have the moral, ethical and logical obligation to see that it gets the help it needs, the financial support, to keep people off the streets and healthy," she said.

If we did have affordable housing … we wouldn't be putting such a burden onto the shelter system.- Peter Gilmer, Poverty Free Saskatchewan

Peter Gilmer, a member of the steering committee for Poverty Free Saskatchewan, says there is worry about COVID-19 in the province's homeless population.

"There's a really high concern about spread within homeless populations, because first of all, when you're in a shelter system, obviously, it can spread very quickly," he said. As well, some people in the homeless population are at greater risk from COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions.

Both Gilmer and Kerr said Saskatchewan as a whole needs to do a better job addressing the root causes of poverty, ensuring shelters are funded properly as they go through the pandemic, and also making sure there's access to affordable housing and social supports to help people break the cycle of poverty. 

"If we did have affordable housing, if we did have an expansion of social housing where rent was geared to income, and greater tenant protections, we wouldn't be putting such a burden onto the shelter system," Gilmer said.

CBC Saskatoon reached out to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Services for comment, but no one was available for an interview on Saturday. 

As a province, Saskatchewan is dealing with a total of 31 active outbreaks as of Saturday morning.