In the past year, the word “stay” has been repeated over and over as Canadians have been urged — even ordered at times — by public health officials and governments to stay apart and stay home.
And yet that isn’t realistic for people who have nowhere to stay.
Homeless people have become particularly vulnerable this winter as they risk exposure to freezing temperatures — dipping into the –30s and –40s on the Prairies — as well as the novel coronavirus, with more limited access to shelter spaces due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Keeping people housed is a key way to limit the spread of COVID-19 as people need to have a secure place to self-isolate,” according to the federal government.
Steven Ledoux, a 50-year-old former construction worker who lived on the streets of Regina for years, knows the daily grind of searching for food, booze and a bed.
Ledoux broke his neck in a construction job accident in 2012, then began drinking heavily. Soon, he was homeless, digging in dumpsters and couch surfing or passing out in parkades. He said he was often “drunk and disorderly, just staggering around the city” and would get arrested and spend the night in police cells or the brief-stay detox centre in Regina.
That all changed three years ago, when he was referred to the federally funded Housing First program in the city. A case worker helped him apply for disability benefits and found him a rental house in the north central area.
So when the pandemic began early last year, Ledoux had no trouble following the public health recommendations.
“I mainly stay home, trying to stay away from downtown,” he said.
He said he has also managed to stay out of trouble with police and stay sober most of the time.
‘We can bring the supports to them’
Over the past decade, Housing First programs have become common in several Canadian cities, touted for their simple philosophy: provide people who are chronically homeless with permanent housing, without preconditions, and then work on other challenges.
In addition to Regina, other cities with the program include Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Hamilton and Fredericton. In Edmonton, for example, the city’s Housing First program has helped more than 12,000 people since it started in 2009. It currently serves 1,100 people.
“It doesn’t matter if people are sober, it doesn’t matter if they have bad records of tenancy — nothing matters as long as they are homeless and in need of supports,” said Kendra Giles, manager of innovative housing programs at Phoenix Residential Society in Regina.
“We put [housing] in place first, and then you can work on everything else after.”
Giles oversees the Housing First program in Regina, which began with six clients in 2016 and currently serves 30 clients on a budget of $800,000 a year. Her agency released statistics in 2018 that showed it was cheaper to support chronically homeless people in housing than to have them constantly cycle through police cells, jails, hospitals and detox centres.
She said she’s convinced the pandemic has revealed that Housing First has even more merit.
“You couldn’t get a more perfect setup,” she said. “Given that everyone has their own safe place to call home, people can actually be in a safe place to isolate, and we can bring the supports to them.”
Every day, housing support teams make the rounds in the city, checking in on clients to deliver medication, groceries and even alcohol.
Ali McCudden, a support worker with the managed alcohol program (MAP), opens the rear compartment of her grey minivan and grabs two tallboy beers before walking up the snow-covered sidewalk to a client’s house.
She makes three deliveries a day to 10 clients, bringing them “what they like — beer, vodka, whisky or wine.”
All are safer to drink than mouthwash or hand sanitizer, she says, and the home deliveries stop people from going to the bar or liquor store.
People who test positive can stay home
Phoenix received additional money from the federal Reaching Home program this past year to expand its managed alcohol program. The funding subsidizes the cost of alcohol, which usually costs too much for clients on provincial social assistance.
Support teams provide all kinds of services, including driving clients to medical appointments, teaching them how to cook and clean, providing addictions counselling and managing their finances.
A couple of Housing First clients in Regina have contracted the virus and self-isolated at home. Case workers called them several times a day and helped ensure they had everything they needed to stay home.
Rudy McCuaig, a 57-year-old army veteran, sits by his window, smoking a cigarette and waiting for the Phoenix team to arrive.
“They come check on me, make sure I’m doing OK,” he said. “They’re very protective.”
McCuaig, who got shot in the leg when he was serving in the army, shuffles into his kitchen with a walker. Before the pandemic, he slept in a tent in the bush near the Golden Mile Shopping Centre in Regina.
In a two-year period, he spent 246 nights in the brief-stay detox centre, which admits intoxicated people for one-night stays. He says a lot of those nights were in the winter, when temperatures turned freezing.
Homeless shelters have been forced to cut capacity
As the bitter cold hit Saskatchewan, people who are homeless have been desperately searching for spots in shelters or warming places — temporary indoor locations that allow people to briefly escape the cold.
There have been two freezing deaths in Saskatoon so far this year.
Agencies that help the province’s homeless and precariously housed populations have had to cut capacity to allow for physical distancing and — at times — even close temporarily due to outbreaks.
WATCH | Pandemic drives home importance of Housing First program:
Jason Mercredi is executive director of Saskatoon’s Prairie Harm Reduction, which offers services for vulnerable people and runs a supervised injection site. It’s one of the 12 designated warm-up spaces in the city but is allowing only nine people inside when it would normally have room for about 20.
“Pretty much every day where the temperature drops below –15, we have people begging us to let them in the building,” Mercredi said. “We’ve had people crying; we’ve had people quite upset.”
Mercredi said the city needs a 24/7 warm-up location.
Steven Ledoux said he doesn’t miss the life-or-death struggle of being homeless in the winter.
Now, his biggest challenge is boredom.
“The more you sit around, the more you want to drink,” he said.
A Housing First social worker gave Ledoux a kitten before Christmas to keep him company over the holidays. Ledoux named the cat “Covid” and jokes that he hangs out with Covid instead of getting it.
He’s proud of himself, though.
When public health officials urge people to stay home, it’s something he can finally do.
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