Windsor's Downtown Mission defies health unit order, reopens shelter

Despite an order forbidding Windsor's Downtown Mission from accepting new clients, the shelter has reopened one of its locations to house people who it says have fallen through the cracks amid a significant COVID-19 outbreak. 

The mission says there are 35 people in need of shelter

The Downtown Mission has reopened a temporary shelter at 850 Ouellette Ave., after it was ordered to close the site by the health unit due to a COVID-19 outbreak. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Despite an order forbidding Windsor's Downtown Mission from accepting new clients, the shelter has reopened one of its locations to house people who it says have fallen through the cracks amid a significant COVID-19 outbreak. 

Executive director of the Downtown Mission, Ron Dunn, told CBC News that he reopened a shelter Sunday night at 850 Ouellette Ave., a former city library branch, to house 35 people who are 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 says he is reopening the space because these people aren't eligible to stay at either of the two facilities.

But the reopening violates a section 22 order issued by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) on Feb.22, that forced the Mission to close all of its locations and suspend new client intake at 850 Ouellette. Dunn said this means only those who have been using his services as of Feb. 11 — when the outbreak was first declared — can continue to do so.  

"I will not comply," Dunn said Monday, adding that he told health unit officials the same thing when they first served him the order. He said the health unit also came by the site Monday to remind him of the order, but they did not close down the temporary shelter. 

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

The concern comes amid a scramble by the city and WECHU to react to massive outbreaks at the two downtown shelters.

In a release the city says that to be accepted to the emergency shelter, people are "expected to follow the rules established by infection prevention and control experts to prevent an outbreak in that facility and keep all guests safe."

But, says Dunn, if people don't meet them, and also can't stay at any of the downtown mission locations then, "where are they going to go?"

"With the absence of an answer of where they go, we reopened, we feel that's the only play we had," Dunn said. 

He said he was not part of planning for the emergency shelter and expected that the space would take in any one in need of a place to stay. 

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

Meanwhile, the 73-bed aquatic centre is only taking in people who have left the IRC after their 14 day isolation. 

Anyone who arrives at the aquatic centre, and hasn't come from the IRC, is being turned away, Dunn said. He added that while he understands this is being done to make sure only cohorts of healthy people are staying together, it leaves some people behind. 

"We created a vacuum or a gap in service for people and so since we created it, it's up to us to fill it and that's what we did," Dunn said. 

The temporary shelter at 850 Ouellette Ave. first opened on Feb. 15, four days after the Downtown Mission declared a COVID-19 outbreak. The mission said the new location offered them more space to keep clients physically distanced.

Ron Dunn, executive director of the Downtown Mission, says the available options have left out some people who need shelter. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

As cases continued to increase, the city and other healthcare partners came together to open the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre as an emergency shelter. The health unit ordered the Downtown Mission to close its two locations and the temporary shelter once the aquatic shelter started running on Feb. 25

In an email to CBC News, the City of Windsor said that it cannot comment on the Mission reopening its site at the former library. 

But, it noted that the aquatic centre opened to give the Mission additional time to come into compliance with the health unit's order. 

"Residents who are symptomatic, COVID-positive, or close contacts are required to complete an isolation period, according to public health guidelines.  The City has established an Isolation and Recovery Centre for this purpose.  Guests who are cleared for discharge may access the [aquatic centre] or other emergency shelters," the city's email reads.  


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