With many local municipalities opting to close libraries as part of their current COVID-19 strategy and many local shelters suspending daytime access to their hubs, some homeless people are now left with nowhere to go during the day.
Linda Goodall, executive director at Lighthouse Soup Kitchen in Orillia, says the shelter has suspended their community lunch program and their drop-in program for the public. The emergency shelter is operating at its capacity of 14 people and will be operating as usual with enhanced health precautions in place.
“We have 14 people who are in shelter. We can’t have them self-isolate when it’s communal living,” she said.
To help bridge the gap, Goodall says they are offering bagged lunches at the door, called the Pop Up Sandwich Station. The program, which started on Monday, served 62 people out of the door during its first day.
“A percentage of them are still sleeping on the street,” she said. “We’re doing our best to find out who is experiencing homelessness... and working with the city and the County of Simcoe.”
While plans are changing from day-to-day as new updates on the pandemic come in, Sara Peddle, executive director at the David Busby Centre in Barrie says local agencies such as Busby, Youth Haven and the Elizabeth Fry Society have been meeting regularly to try to make sure the local homeless population are kept safe and supported despite services waning.
“I have meetings every day,” said Peddle, adding meetings with agencies that help the homeless county-wide have also been taking place to address the issue and share resources.
Last week, the Busby Centre decided to suspend access to the 88 Mulcaster St. hub for anyone who is not currently staying overnight in their overnight program, staff and volunteers until further notice.
According to media reports, in Toronto, space has been acquired by the city at a local motel to quarantine any homeless who are suspected of having the virus. In San Francisco, the city has acquired recreational vehicles to quarantine homeless clients who have been infected with the virus.
While there are currently no concrete plans locally on how to quarantine the local homeless population should COVID-19 spread, Peddle is optimistic solutions will be found.
“There have been groups who are looking at out-of-the-box solutions. We need to find some here,” said Peddle.
In the meantime, the Busby Street Outreach van is still making the rounds during the day, providing area homeless with food, water, blankets and clothing, harm reduction supplies, brief crisis counselling, advocacy support and community referrals.
“We are seeing an increase in people accessing those services,” said Peddle.
Both Goodall and Peddle said they would be in attendance at a meeting with the County of Simcoe on Monday afternoon to address how to deal with the homeless situation county-wide in light of COVID-19.
“It’s important we work together to figure out how we can do this, especially if someone becomes ill in one of our shelters or on the street,” said Goodall.
To help ease some of challenges Lighthouse is facing, they have started a Meal Train to help provide food for those in the shelter. Anyone can sign up to provide 14 meals to the shelter on a given day.
If you’re interested in participating in the Meal Train, more information and the sign up sheet can be found here.
“There is a gap,” said Goodall. “If our staff get ill and we have no volunteers, we would have to shut down. Where would those 14 people go? So, how can we ensure they stay sheltered?”
Greg Bishop, manager of social services with the County of Simcoe, said they are in regular contact with all service providers county-wide on how they’re navigating emergency planning and concerns about capacity issues.
“In a particularly evolving situation like we have now with COVID-19, we’re in much more regular contact with (service providers) than usual. We’re meeting with providers this afternoon,” said Bishop. “Right now, all our service operators are still operating and functioning. We haven’t heard any concerns about health issues.”
Bishop said service providers at Monday afternoon’s meeting will be looking at all possible solutions on how to deal with members of the homeless population coming down with COVID-19, should it happen.
Bishop said the county has not yet seen a change in trends regarding the number of people asking for any of the services the county provides, including the motel voucher program in Collingwood.
“As part of the discussion, we want to ask if anyone has decreased their hours of operation, and if so, what else is available? We’re all looking out for the most vulnerable citizens, what kinds of supports are needed and what supports have changed due to COVID-19,” said Bishop. “We’ll keep assessing this on an ongoing basis. We’re open to possibilities and try to come up with some solutions.”
“We’re staying on top of this evolving situation, and communicating with our partners and much as we can,” he added.