Windsor's new emergency shelter opens amid COVID-19 outbreaks

A new emergency shelter opened its doors to the city's most vulnerable residents Thursday amid a major COVID-19 outbreak.

Mayor speaks out against backlash received over using aquatic centre as shelter

A look inside Windsor's aquatic centre, which opened Thursday as an emergency shelter. (Submitted by City of Windsor)

A new emergency shelter opened its doors to the city's most vulnerable residents Thursday amid a major COVID-19 outbreak.

The Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre, located at 401 Pitt Street West, has been transformed over the last several days into a shelter with a capacity of 75 people.

Strict infection prevention and control measures are in effect and the space has been altered to ensure adherence to public health guidelines, the City of Windsor said in a media release.

The facility's opening was prompted by two COVID-19 outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness declared earlier this month.

115 COVID-19 cases associated with shelters

As of Wednesday, there are 81 cases among clients and staff at the Downtown Mission, and 34 related to an outbreak at the Salvation Army shelter.

The city's existing isolation and recovery shelter had become full amid the outbreaks, creating a scramble to accomodate those affected that led to the city offering up the aquatic centre. 

Crews working Tuesday to prepare the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre as an emergency shelter. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

According to Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, the plan to use the swimming facility to temporarily house people who are homeless has prompted some backlash.

In an open letter to residents, Dilkens said he was surprised and disappointed by some of the negative reaction he and his council colleagues have received.

"In our position, City Council and I do not have the luxury of prioritizing aqua-fit, diving lessons, and lap swimming over the needs of Windsorites who have nowhere else to turn in winter months," he wrote.

Frankly, I hope you would expect nothing less from us.- Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens

The facility is expected to remain open as a shelter until March 29. It's possible that the shelter operations may delay the reopening as a swimming facility, Dilkens said.

Jelena Payne, commissioner of community development and health services, said an "unprecedented amount of work" went into opening the shelter within a few days. 

 "Not only does this facility provide a safe environment for guests, it serves as a training opportunity as well. Staff worked around the clock to make this happen so guests of the mission have a safe place to go," she said in the media release.

At first, officials aimed to have the facility open by Wednesday.

The shelter will be run by a coalition of community groups, including the Downtown Mission, Assisted Living Southwestern Ontario and Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare.

Rev. Ron Dunn, executive director of the Downtown Mission, said on CBC Radio's Windsor Morning that it will mostly be mission employees staffing the new shelter, with many reporting to work there Thursday morning.

Clients were expected to start moving in Thursday afternoon.

The mission's two regular locations were shut down officially by order of the health unit earlier this week, though the organization had already taken that step and moved into the former Windsor Public Library site on Ouellette Avenue.

Prior to the outbreak at the mission, which was declared on Feb. 11, screening measures and other protocols were in place, Dunn said. The shelter was in contact with city officials and the health unit on outbreak plans.

Nonetheless, Dunn said he felt it was inevitable that someone at the shelter would contract COVID-19.

Dr. Wajid Ahmed, medical officer of health for the region, has previously noted the vulnerabilities within the homeless population, and challenges in preventing COVID-19 transmission.

With files from Jacob Barker and Windsor Morning

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