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York Region homeless have a new place to go during coronavirus pandemic

March 29, 2020

Emergency housing gets self-isolation shelter near Newmarket

Mar 29, 2020 by Kim Zarzour

Homeless people in York Region who need to be self-isolated because of COVID-19 now have a place to go.

Leeder Place, a family shelter in East Gwillimbury, is being retrofitted to provide 15 self-contained units during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This is for people with nowhere else to go,” said Cordelia Abankwa, the region’s general manager of social services. “People who are experiencing homelessness aren’t always able to find a place to self-isolate. This allows us to protect the well homeless and give those who are in need of self-isolation a place to go safely, where they are supported.”

About 40 people who had been living at the family emergency shelter on Yonge Street were moved earlier this week to a local hotel, where they will be supported by Blue Door and the Region of York, she said.

York Region Social Services and Public Health partnered with the community in helping to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable populations, she said. Leeder Place was chosen for self-isolation because the units need to have their own bathrooms and most other emergency housing in the region have shared facilities.

Contractors are working feverishly to ensure Leeder is ready by the end of the week, she said. Some retrofitting is required to ensure there is excellent air flow in every room, the shared kitchen swapped for individual food delivery, and a fridge in each room.

“We want to make them as comfortable as possible while waiting for their tests results or recovering.”

At the same time, the region’s Public Health created new interim guidance for those in emergency housing service settings to reduce the risk, including setting up a uniform approach to screening and ways to separate volunteers, staff and residents should the illness appear.

Surveys show at least 300 people are without a home in York Region. Local agencies say the “realistic” number is likely five times that high and they are sounding the alarm: COVID-19 will have a devastating impact.

There are currently no known cases in emergency housing facilities, but Abankwa said agencies want to be proactive and prepared for potential cases.

The virus has already hit Toronto’s homeless population, with one person testing positive in the city’s shelter system March 20.

In the U.S., a Silicon Valley homeless person reportedly died March 17.

In York Region, drop-ins and communal programs have been cancelled or are being done differently to avoid gathering. There are no more communal meals — clients are given boxed meals to eat in their rooms or elsewhere, said Michael Braithwaite, CEO of Blue Door.

 Volunteers — the backbone of many of these programs — have been asked to stay home and many community meal programs have been suspended as well.

It has left those whose job it is to support the community’s most vulnerable stretched thin and calling out for help themselves.

The Canadian Mental Health Association York-South Simcoe is continuing services like the van outreach, adapting with physical distancing precautions and, where available for staff, providing personal protective equipment.

“We haven’t stopped services; we’re doing it differently,” said CEO Rebecca Shields. “There are some real concerns among staff. They’re working as long and as hard as they can and they don’t want to get sick.”

Braithwaite said York Region agencies are changing shifts so fewer staff are at risk, but many facilities have reduced staffing.

They’ve also increased cleaning staff, which means greater pressure on financial resources, he said.

In the shelters, clients who noticed lack of volunteers and reduced staffing are stepping up, doing things like taking out the garbage themselves, Shields said, but they are worried.

“They’re saying ‘I live in a shelter, where am I going to go?’ There’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “They have health concerns, mental and physical concerns … They’re scared.”

The province announced March 23 $200 million in funding to help municipalities and social service providers — such as shelters, food banks, emergency services, charities and nonprofit organizations — continue to deliver their critical services, hire additional staff, and find ways to promote social distancing and self-isolation to keep clients safe and healthy.

Abankwa said there are now private offers of support — those in the private sector opening their hearts to the most vulnerable in York Region. For example, the CAA is offering drivers to help get people to appointments, restaurants are offering meals, and the final steps are underway with United Way of Greater Toronto to fill gaps as a united community.

“We understand we can’t do this alone,” she said. “Every emergency, and this one is no exception, eventually becomes a social services emergency. At the end of the day, people need social supports. It is an unprecedented situation we’re facing, but we are so encouraged by the way everyone is rising to the challenge and we will emerge stronger.”