Windsor's Downtown Mission defies city, health unit order amid dispute to close temporary shelter

The City of Windsor and Windsor-Essex County Health Unit have ordered the Downtown Mission to close a temporary site that the shelter reopened amid a large COVID-19 outbreak. 

Mission reopened space despite previous health unit orders

The Downtown Mission opened the site at 850 Ouellette Avenue last month as its COVID-19 outbreak grew. It said the space was better suited for physical distancing. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

The Downtown Mission says it will not obey an order issued by the City of Windsor and the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit that demands it close a temporary "rogue" shelter that it's using to house people amid a large COVID-19 outbreak. 

In a news release Tuesday, the city said that the Downtown Mission's reopening of 850 Ouellette Ave. — which was previously ordered to close by the health unit on Feb. 22 — is "counterproductive to the paramount goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community." 

In response, executive director of the Mission Ron Dunn issued a news release Tuesday evening stating he will continue to go against the order "until a plan is in place to accommodate all people seeking emergency shelter in real time." 

The order comes amid a dispute between the Mission, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) and the City of Windsor, all of which have spent nearly a month scrambling to resolve a COVID-19 outbreak among the region's homeless population. 

Dunn reopened the former city library branch Sunday to house 35 people who he said were being turned away from the Isolation and Recovery Centre (IRC) and a newly opened emergency shelter at the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre.

Dunn said that because people weren't eligible to stay at either of the two facilities, they were left with nowhere else to go.

But the reopening violates a section 22 order issued Feb. 22 by WECHU, which forced the Mission to close all of its locations and suspend new client intake at 850 Ouellette Ave.

"I can't turn my back on one person, never mind 35 and there is no place for them to go," Dunn told CBC News Monday. "I'm not trying to pick a fight, I respect the health unit and the work they're doing." 

Yet the city's chief of staff Andrew Teliszewsky told CBC News Tuesday that there aren't 35 people in need of shelter. 

"There is more than enough space for all individuals and there is absolutely no gap that exists," said Teliszewsky. 

"Seeking to establish a rogue shelter at the 850 Ouellette site is putting all of this hard work at risk, that we've been doing collectively as a community over the last 2 weeks." 

The city said there are several options for people to stay, including: 

  • 51 shelter beds at the Salvation Army. 
  • 75 cots at the temporary emergency shelter at the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre. 
  • The city's Isolation and Recovery Centre. 

The city said that over the weekend it supported 66 people at the aquatic centre.

Windsor's aquatic centre opened late last month as an emergency shelter amid two COVID-19 outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness. (Submitted by City of Windsor)

"The majority ... are following the rules and appreciate the safe environment. We recognize that not everyone agrees with these practices, but we cannot jeopardize the health and wellbeing of guests and staff at any of the facilities offered," the news release from the city reads. 

It continued to say that the Mission cannot run independently of the  broader system and against expert guidance if it wants to get rid of homelessness and stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Teliszewsky said that Dunn has actually creating a staffing gap by having workers from the aquatic centre run the temporary site. Because of this, Teliszewsky said they cannot accept those staff back at the aquatic centre. 

In Dunn's news release Tuesday evening, he expressed frustration at the city's response, noting that not having an emergency shelter at a time like this "is an irresponsible response to a very real, ongoing problem." While he said he doesn't want to work against the system, "one person left outside based on a city organized plan should outrage everyone." 

The IRC is a space for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or been in contact with someone who is positive. But Dunn said since many of his clients also deal with mental health issues, this isn't always the ideal space for them to stay. 

Dunn said Monday the 75-bed aquatic centre is only taking in people who have left the IRC after their 14 day isolation. 

But the city says this isn't the case — with rapid testing at the aquatic centre, Teliszewsky said there's a process in place to appropriately triage those seeking shelter. The shelter also rules, that include things like not taking or selling drugs.

Windsor-Essex top doc 'disheartened' by Mission's actions

When asked about the Downtown Mission violating orders, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for WECHU said he's disappointed. 

"It is disheartening to see that the executive director is indicating his interest in violating these orders, which is not helpful for anyone, but we are trying to stay focused on serving what is important and critical, which is protecting people from COVID and also ensuring we have a good system in place to support those who need these shelters," Ahmed said.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, says he is 'disheartened' to see that the Mission has acted against the orders he laid out last month. (WECHU/YouTube)

Ahmed said that it could be a "disaster" to mix those potentially exposed and with those who have not been.

"Putting someone who is already exposed or who is currently incubating the virus back with the general mix population, it does raise significant challenges and potential risk for spread in that new group," he said.

Ahmed added that conversations with would be taking place regarding the issue on Tuesday. 

"It is a very difficult situation at this time in terms of finding shelter for these people," he said.

Man experiencing homelessness says he was turned away

Amid the back and forth, Kevin Mayea says if Dunn didn't reopen the shelter, he would have spent the last few nights sleeping in a parking garage. Mayea said he went to the aquatic centre but was told they were at capacity. 

Kevin Mayea says if the shelter at 850 Ouellette Ave. hadn't reopened, he would have spent the past few nights sleeping in the stairwell of a parking garage. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"The city kind of forgot about us," Mayea said. "[I] had nowhere to go and thank God, Ron was able to provide us with a place to stay here at the library cause otherwise we'd be sleeping over here or over there ... I wouldn't have anything, I'd be starving, freezing cold." 

Teliszewsky said he couldn't speak to this specific case but said the aquatic centre has never reached full capacity. He added that sometimes people don't want to commit to the rules at the shelter.

Salvation Army outbreak to be cleared

COVID-19 outbreaks at the Salvation Army and Downtown Mission were declared last month.

The outbreak at the Mission has been linked to a COVID-19 variant of concern, one of the more contagious strains of the virus.

As of Tuesday, there are 90 COVID-19 cases associated with the Downtown Mission and 36 associated with the Salvation Army. In an email Tuesday, the Salvation Army said all of the cases have been cleared and it will be out of outbreak soon. 

The shelter said it is working with the city to start accepting people from the Isolation and Recovery Centre. 

The city said local healthcare partners continue to work with the Mission to clean and prepare its Victoria Avenue site for re-opening.

With files from Jacob Barker, Kerri Breen

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