Michael Swan

Shelters step up efforts for vulnerable

By 
  • March 20, 2020

Society’s most vulnerable are often lost in the shuffle at the best of times, but with the world being blindsided by COVID-19 those operating programs for the homeless and marginalized are working to ensure these people are not forgotten.

Out of the Cold programs and emergency shelters are eminently aware of the dangers posed by the spread of COVID-19 that has caused widespread shutdowns across Canada in an attempt to contain the virus. Ontario has declared a state of public emergency which has banned events with more than 50 people.

The crisis is “deeply concerning” to David Reycraft, a situation that “keeps me awake at night.”

“In the Out of the Cold program it’s certainly highlighting some of the challenges that we’re facing with marginalized men and women,” said Reycraft, director of housing and homelessness services with Dixon Hall, the agency that oversees Toronto’s Out of the Cold program which shelters and feeds the homeless in church facilities during the winter months.

As of March 17, none of the guests at Out of the Cold in Toronto, nor the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold programs in York Region north of the city, had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. It has, however, made its way into Toronto’s Out of the Cold program with the Beth Sholom Synagogue closing its site March 10 after a member of the congregation contracted the virus, and forcing another location to step up to take in clients, said Raycroft.

Yet the situation is playing havoc with the programs, as many of the 16 Toronto locations have been forced to shut down — including Catholic partners St. Patrick’s Parish in downtown Toronto and St. Brigid’s Annex location on the Danforth.

It’s a matter of concern for those running the shelter programs. The havoc has led to the closure of all but one of the Mosaic Interfaith locations. Guests are only being welcomed at Rouge Valley Mennonite Church, and only until March 31.

Before that decision was made, Rehana Sumar, executive director of the Mosaic Interfaith program, said a new protocol had been implemented March 10. That protocol is seeing increased screening measures for both guests and volunteers and extra sanitizing efforts, all under guidelines from local health authorities.

“In some ways we’re kind of just implementing our own protocols based on the information that is out there,” she said.

The Toronto Out of the Cold implemented similar measures, especially enhanced infection control training for staff and volunteers.

“We’re certainly upping our game around that and making sure we’re doing refresher courses with our cleaners,” said Reycraft.

At St. Patrick’s, it was a hard decision to close Out of the Cold. Director Julia Pelenyi said, “We feel a moral obligation to continue to serve,” particularly with a look at the numbers which show demand has risen over last year.

At Dixon Hall, the concerns go beyond just the Out of the Cold program. It provides a multitude of services and programs for the vulnerable in downtown Toronto, including emergency shelters. These shelters are larger and people are in closer contact, said Reycraft.

Advocates for the homeless like Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe are warning COVID-19 could devastate a population already at high risk.

“Shelters are like a petri dish waiting for COVID-19 to arrive,” Crowe wrote in a recent blog post, and like cruise ships are vulnerable to outbreaks. “Except shelters are more crowded, have even worse ventilation, poorer staffing levels and cleaning standards.”

Concerns are also being raised about what will happen when Out of the Cold ceases at the end of March. Their guests are more vulnerable than the average person, said Sumar, and “they don’t have the tools to protect themselves.”

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