Coronavirus outbreak among homeless would be ‘devastating,’ experts warn

TORONTO — Advocates are scrambling to find ways to protect the homeless and those living in shelters from COVID-19, warning that an outbreak in these communities could be devastating.

People who sleep in shelters or on the street already have a lower life expectancy, suffer from addiction, and have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk should they develop the virus, experts say.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness has made an urgent plea that more emergency shelter spaces be made across the country to prevent overcrowding and allow for social distancing.

“How can they possibly self-isolate if they don’t have a home to go to,” Jeremy Hunka, spokesperson for Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission, told CTV News.

Though the mission has no indication that COVID-19 has surfaced in its community, Hunka noted that shelter visitors would be among the hardest hit should a widespread outbreak occur in Metro Vancouver.

Shelters across the country are implementing emergency health protocols, increasing sanitation and preventative education to protect visitors. Some have even moved their hot meal delivery services outside to prevent crowding in confined spaces.

Covenant House in Toronto has even taken steps to halt the acceptance of clothing and non-perishable food donations in an effort to “reduce foot traffic and exposure.”

Amid the COVID-19 concerns, homeless Canadians say they are also battling service cutbacks.

“All of a sudden we have nowhere to go and we aren’t welcome anywhere,” said Myshelle McNamee, who sleeps in shelters.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elaborated on new economic supports aimed at offsetting the wide-ranging impacts of the outbreak, including $157.5 million for the Reaching Home initiative.

The funding could be used to purchase additional shelter beds and “physical barriers for social distancing and securing accommodation to reduce overcrowding in shelters.”

On Wednesday, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said he, along with a number of other big-city mayors, have been in talks with Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about additional support for the homeless community.

“This is not going to be a short-term effort,” Bowman said. “We are very concerned about how it may affect our most vulnerable citizens,” Bowman said.

Homeless shelters across the country have been working together to create a unified response to the crisis.

Advocates are also calling for rapid COVID-19 testing for homeless populations to prevent community outbreaks.

On Tuesday, Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen noted that the federal government is also concerned about how difficult it would be to track exposure if the virus were transmitted through the homeless population, and understands the call to prioritize testing for them, he said.

Yet, as the case load continues to rise across Canada, some are finding hope in the kindness of others.

On Wednesday, Halifax’s Souls Harbour Rescue Mission thanked residents for their support after seeing a massive uptick in donations.

“Last week social media was exploding with people hoarding toilet paper and emptying grocery stores,” the mission wrote on Facebook.

“This week we’re see people taking a deep breath, realizing we can get through this, and looking for how to make sure ALL our community is looked after.”

With files from CTV Winnipeg and The Canadian Press

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