As It Happens

A tale of 2 cities: Belfast housed its homeless, Vegas moved them to a parking lot

Cities around the world struggle to protect homeless populations from COVID-19 during global pandemic.

Cities around the world struggle to protect homeless populations from COVID-19 during global pandemic

People rest at a makeshift camp for the homeless Saturday in Las Vegas. Officials opened part of a city parking lot as a makeshift homeless shelter after a local shelter closed when a man staying there tested positive for the coronavirus. (John Locher/The Associated Press)


While the city of Belfast worked to get every single homeless person they could find off the streets and into shelter, Las Vegas had people sleep outdoors in a parking lot. 

The stark contrast highlights some of the disparate responses to homelessness around the world during the coronavirus pandemic, says anti-homelessness advocate Brittany Corder.

"Look at these other places that are doing really wonderful things that are treating this population in a dignified and respectful manner," Corder, director of Care Complex, a Las Vegas non-profit that supports homeless people, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And to see how we're handling it, it's really, really frustrating."

A parking lot outside a convention centre

Photos of homeless people in Las Vegas — a city brimming with empty hotels — sleeping on rectangles painted on the asphalt of a parking lot have sparked outrage. 

The images are from the upper floor outdoor parking lot at the Cashman Center convention complex, about 11 kilometres from the Las Vegas Strip.

The city set up the temporary makeshift shelter after Catholic Charities was forced to shut down its 500-person overnight shelter for disinfecting after one of its residents tested positive for COVID-19.

People prepare places to sleep in area marked by painted boxes on the ground of a parking lot at a makeshift camp for the homeless in Las Vegas. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

It was built outside so they could reserve the convention centre for possible hospital overflow during the pandemic, city spokesperson David Riggleman told the New York Times.

"It was a logistical heavy lift," he said. "That was a lot to pull together in a very short amount of time."

But Corder wasn't impressed. 

"It seemed really just inhuman. There was nothing dignified about it," Corder said. "It almost just looked like cages without the bars."

The shelter re-opened on Wednesday at half its usual capacity, and the parking lot shelter has since shut down.

"But we'll see what happens if someone else tests positive," Corder said. "I don't know if we're going to be back in this situation in a few weeks."

Quiet on the streets of Belfast

Meanwhile, in the city of Belfast, advocates say nobody is sleeping outside during the pandemic. 

The Northern Ireland capital teamed up with local charities to scour the streets and make sure everyone with nowhere to go was placed in a shelter, hotel or B&B.

In 2019, nearly 10,000 people presented as homeless in Northern Ireland, the majority of them in Belfast, according to the most recently available government figures. 

Deserted streets due to the coronavirus restrictions in Belfast on Monday. (Peter Morrison/The Associated Press)

"I'm standing in the centre of Belfast and the streets are thankfully a lot more quieter than normal," Paul Mc Cusker, a Belfast city councillor who runs the St. Patrick's soup kitchen, said.

"In Belfast each night we have a number of homeless people who sleep rough on our streets. And, you know, during the COVID-19 there's been lots of efforts to look at homelessness and to look at getting people off the streets into a safe place."

Mc Cusker says he's proud of the work. But he also says there's more to be done.

"It's more about giving the person a room for the night or somewhere to sleep. We also have to ensure that they will get the support they require as well. Many people who are homeless in Belfast suffer addiction problems," he said.

"So we have to also ensure that, you know, it's more than giving the key to the door or to their new accommodation. It's also ensuring that we have the wraparound support to make sure that they're able to stay there as well."

Homelessness in the time of COVID-19 

Individuals who lack housing are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Many may already have health problems such as heart disease or diabetes, and live in conditions that do not allow for frequent hand washing and social distancing.

It's becoming a growing concern in Canada and around the world. 

In Toronto, the city has faced delays in converting a 200-room hotel into a place for homeless people to recover from the disease.

The province of Manitoba says it is adding 142 more beds at shelters in the province to help those experiencing homelessness follow better physical distancing protocols. 

In the U.S., the Trump administration announced it will distribute about $3 billion US in the first round of coronavirus aid to help the homeless find emergency shelter and for communities to expand testing and treatment.

The initial installment of money represents about one-quarter of the total that Congress allocated to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a $2.2-trillion aid package. 

Mc Cusker, meanwhile, says Belfast's quick action proves that homelessness is not the insurmountable problem people make it out to be.

"There's lessons to be learned from this that if we can get people off the streets during a pandemic and a crisis, then we can do it any other time of the year," he said.

"So I think when COVID-19 does hopefully settle, you know, that we can then look at a long-term plan to ensure that no one has to sleep on our streets."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News and The Associated Press. Interviews with Brittany Corder and Paul Mc Cusker produced by Morgan Passi. 

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