Residents of Saskatoon's inner city face unique challenges during pandemic

The pandemic is exacerbating housing and health challenges in Saskatoon's inner city.

Housing and health services top list of concerns

Shandra Sanderson is trying to do the best for her four kids. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Shandra Sanderson says the beat-up bungalow kitty corner from Pleasant Hill Park is not the ideal location for a single mom with four pre-teen kids, especially in this time of COVID-19.

It's in a troubled part of Saskatoon and has its own history. Last summer, suspected gang members broke into the home and pepper sprayed the people inside.

But Sanderson needed to move. When the pandemic hit, she lived in a two-bedroom apartment and, given the orders to stay home, the space proved too small for five people.

"It's not in the greatest of areas but it's $900 [per month], it has the yard and it's close to the shopping stuff that is open," she said of her new home, where she's been for about a month. 

Housing advocate Lyn Brown says Sanderson's story 'further reiterates the need for that appropriate and safe and affordable housing.' (LinkedIn)

Sanderson's housing challenge is not unique.

"There's a sense of urgency around the need to isolate and, as a single mother in her position, I can understand her fear and her anxiety, and her need to provide for her children in a time when the world itself feels fearful," said Lyn Brown with the Saskatoon Housing Initiative Partnership.

Brown is also part of a broad inter-agency group tackling the issues facing people living in the inner city.

"From my perspective this story really just further reiterates the need for that appropriate and safe and affordable housing that can be available to these families and the single moms and the people out there who right now are very anxious."

Brown said the pandemic is exacerbating challenges that already existed around housing.

Pre-COVID, for instance, she said there could be large, extended families living in close quarters. Now, the elderly people in a home — who face a higher health risk — may not be comfortable.

"Those younger people may not be welcome in those homes now. And so then that piece of homelessness, which in some ways was hidden because it was family, there was many people in a family unit, and now they're not necessarily welcome during this time of risk for certain age groups and and certain health conditions and so on," Brown said.

Drive around the inner city these days and the challenges around managing COVID-19 are easy to see. Consider physical distancing, for instance.

The White Buffalo Youth Lodge and the Friendship Inn both offer bagged meals. People line up outside, and are admitted in controlled numbers.

But, once back outside, many sit side-by-side on benches and planters to eat.

Playgrounds in the area are closed but, on a sunny and warm weekday, the alleys and sidewalks are full of kids playing together. Keeping two metres apart does not seem to be a priority.

Each solution creates new challenges

Brown is part of a larger group that includes Jason Mercredi with AIDS Saskatoon. One of the inter-agency group's key service locations is the White Buffalo Youth Lodge.

Mercredi says White Buffalo is linked closely to a nearby COVID-19 assessment and test site. The group made a pitch to the Saskatchewan Health Authority in the early days of the pandemic, when White Buffalo became a key centre.

"When we got the hub set up, we had people showing up with cold-like symptoms and we didn't know if they were sick from the flu, from street life or because they had COVID," he said.

"So we got this testing site set up. Now we have a process set up for how people self isolate."

Mercredi says dozens of individuals have been referred to the testing centre in the past two weeks. But it seems each solution creates its own challenges. Mercredi says the testing site shows the need for proper housing.

"We can't just have people self-isolate for 30 days and then kick them back out into the same conditions that they've been sick in the first place, or have the potential exposure," he said.

Shandra Sanderson says moving into a house solved one problem, but has created its own challenges.

She's in a house with a yard. But the yard is across the street from Pleasant Hill Park.

"My smallest one, she's starting have, like, episodes. Where she's like, 'I want to go' kind of thing, right?," she said.

"I had to put locks on my fence here so she wouldn't exit out of my yard."


Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.