Concerns about Winnipeg homeless shelters are mounting as rising COVID-19 cases across the province coincide with the industry’s typically busiest season.
“The pressure on the overall system indicates that if there was a rapid increase in the number of people trying to access space, or if there was a really significant large-scale outbreak in one or more locations, this could create a storm scenario.” says Kris Clemens, communications and community relations manager for End Homelessness Winnipeg.
That pressure, he says, is partly because many employees are working from home right now, and partly because many shelters are already close to capacity.
“In fact, we have more spaces to spend the night during the pandemic than before. However, they are still filling up, ”says Clemens.
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Shelter operators have been meeting with health officials since the beginning of the pandemic to develop strategies to respond to the pandemic.
The most recent of those meetings, held Thursday, focused on discussing the potential impacts of the Omicron variant, Clemens says.
“There are signs that there may still be a lot of COVID cases in our community over the holidays and into the next year, and once again the industry will have to pivot, adapt and come up with new strategies,” says Clemens. .
The timing is particularly bleak, as many in the industry believed they had “turned a corner” in the fall, following a successful vaccine outreach campaign.
Meanwhile, at Siloam Mission, Communications Manager Luke Thiessen says the shelter had already been ramping up COVID mitigation measures following a recent small-scale outbreak.
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“We were already accelerating a lot with the switch to medical masks, adding face protection, eye protection for those who work in front-line areas, as well as running rapid tests,” says Thiessen.
Additionally, Thiessen says the shelter has been staggering meals and erecting barriers in shelter areas overnight to help with social distancing.
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“Capacity is certainly an issue and something that we look at differently from show to show, depending on the space,” says Thiessen.
Across the industry, Clemens says shelters are working together to make sure everyone is safe and has a roof over their head, but officials are developing contingency plans in case capacity is reached or if transfers between shelters they are no longer possible due to the COVID outbreaks.
A saving grace for everyone involved, Clemens says, has been the alternative isolation accommodation (AIA) established throughout the city.
These sites are for people with little or no access to safe housing and need to isolate themselves due to COVID symptoms.
In a statement to Global News, a provincial spokesperson says AIA’s capacity was 50 percent as of Dec. 22.
“This varies over time and has ranged from 30 to 80% of capacity, and the province has the ability to increase capacity if necessary,” the spokesperson said by email.
Clemens says this all points to the need for safer and more permanent housing options in the city.
“Hopefully this fifth wave can also motivate decision makers and leaders to take action on urgently needed housing supply to address gaps in our local housing continuum,” says Clemens.
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