Perfect storm of extreme cold, the shelter crisis and COVID-19 has people in Thunder Bay looking for solutions
Temperatures set to plunge in coming days, raising concerns about safety of homeless population
With temperatures plummeting and fears growing about more deaths of people experiencing homelessness in Thunder Bay, Ont., two teepees popped up at the end of January in the Kaministiqua River Heritage Park.
As a train rattled past, Max Haiven stood at the edge of the parking lot, watching over the teepees.
"There's a situation where the shelters are full, and lots of people are sleeping on the street. And so we think these structures are really important," he said.
Haiven volunteers with activist group Not One More Death. While the group says it wasn't responsible for constructing the two teepees, they saw an immediate need for them as city shelters consistently hit capacity.
Members of Not One More Death decided to watch over the teepees over concerns the city was planning to take them down. As well, the group provided support, food and personal protective equipment for those seeking reprieve from the wintry conditions.
"It seems that cities across Canada, the concern is less about people living or dying and more about the feelings of wealthy ratepayers who don't want to see the crisis that they've helped create," said Haiven. "Often they'll masquerade by saying this is about public health or fire safety. It's not really about that. It's about protecting the image of the city that they want to project.
"This is no time for that."
Municipality says no plans to take down teepees
While Haiven waited for the next group of volunteers to relieve him, fire prevention officer Darren Leishman with Thunder Bay Fire Rescue arrived looking for safety violations.
After a brief inspection, Leishman said the structures weren't large enough to fall under the province's Fire Protection and Prevention Act, so he was fine with the teepees staying up "as long as there's no external heating source brought to them."
Cynthia Olsen, the chair of Thunder Bay's vulnerable populations COVID-19 planning table, later confirmed in an interview with CBC that the city does not currently plan to take down the structures.
As worries about a possible confrontation eased, another problem loomed: a sheltering system at capacity.
The city declared a state of emergency for health and social services on Tuesday, seeking assistance from the province for additional funding and staffing to boost capacity to support people experiencing homelessness and requiring shelter or isolation.
Several days earlier, a client at the Thunder Bay Shelter House tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the district's health unit imposing a static bed list.
"If we get to the point where [the shelters] don't have any more capacity, and if isolation shelters are full, and if COVID takes hold in the shelters … then we've got a real issue on our hands," said Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro in an interview with CBC on Tuesday shortly after declaring the state of emergency.
City adds emergency capacity
During the early weeks of the pandemic, the city and a number of partner agencies developed a plan in case shelters were full, or people experiencing homelessness required isolation. If no existing spaces could be found, there was a bank of 28 rooms to be used.
"In the last couple of weeks, it has been the entire 28 rooms that have been pretty much used every single night," said Olsen.
Shelter House's executive director Michelle Jordan confirmed Friday there had not yet been any additional cases of COVID-19, but said health precautions means they've had to scramble to find solutions for people showing up that aren't on their bed list — either sending people to other shelters in the city or to overflow hotel rooms.
And since the state of emergency was declared, the city was able to expand their overflow capacity to 40 rooms, and Olsen says they are working around the clock to find other solutions.
Fingers pointed at Solicitor General
As for the source of the shelter crisis, some are pointing to the failure of the provincial government to manage the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at two Thunder Bay correctional facilities.
"The challenge with the outbreaks at the correctional facilities, it does have an impact on the vulnerable and marginalized individuals who are experiencing homelessness and who may be released to community, but may not also have a safe space to isolate," said Olsen.
She added, "when planned discharges happen, the pathways [to shelter or isolation rooms] are pretty clear. Some of the challenge has been unplanned discharges and they just happen … sometimes after hours."
Shelter House's Michelle Jordan said the corrections system should have been more prepared.
"Now, it's become the city of Thunder Bay's problem by having people being released that need to be isolated. It's definitely snowballed into a huger issue."
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones continues to refuse requests for an interview with CBC.
An emailed statement from her office said, "inmates are encouraged to work with corrections staff to plan for their release from provincial custody however, participation in discharge planning is not mandatory."
Search for solutions continues
As organizations across the city continue to seek solutions, Not One More Death posted an open letter on it's Facebook page with "a set of urgent recommendations for immediate implementation in the context of the 'perfect storm' of extreme cold, the shelter crisis and COVID-19."
Among the suggestions include the establishment of a "special free bus route" that runs on a 24/7 basis and the opening of another emergency shelter space.
The Thunder Bay Public Library issued a press release Friday afternoon acknowledging the lack of places for homeless people to warm up and sleep, and suggested the former Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital be considered as a possible location for an emergency shelter.
In response to both letters, Cynthia Olsen said, "the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital is not a city facility, so it's not something that would be under the purview of the municipality to do. But we are actively looking at the request right now."