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York Region landlords asked to help during coronavirus crisis

April 26, 2020

Blue Door makes appeal for affordable housing amid COVID-19 pandemic

Apr 26, 2020 by Kim Zarzour

This can be a tough time for York Region landlords looking for tenants during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s also a tough time for people living in emergency housing, trying to physically distance themselves in a pandemic.

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite believes there is solution, one that is a “win-win” for both sides.

Blue Door and other agencies in the region are appealing to landlords with vacant rentals units to help provide affordable housing to those in need.

While the region has been able to keep people without homes safe, long-term stays at emergency housing facilities are not ideal, Michael Braithwaite, CEO of Blue Door says.

During a pandemic, Braithwaite says, the congregate living model, with shared washrooms, kitchens and other facilities, can make physical distancing impossible.

“Housing is still the best and safest option for individuals and families during this pandemic.”

In March, the region repurposed Leeder House in East Gwillimbury from a shelter for families into an isolation shelter.

Larger rooms that were geared toward families were retrofitted into 15 self-contained units to include space for one person with their own kitchen and bath.

The 40 people, primarily families, who had been living at the Yonge Street shelter were given rooms at Newmarket’s Best Western hotel as a temporary measure.

So far, 12 people have stayed in the isolation units — never more than five at a time. These are usually people who presented at hospital with possible coronavirus symptoms and were tested, Braithwaite says.

While awaiting results, and with nowhere else to go, they were given a unit that let them stay isolated until they received results.

While in self-isolation these residents receive support for addictions like alcohol, he says.

 “When you go off really hard drugs, your body hurts and it’s awful, but when you’re off alcohol it can kill you.”

These isolating residents also receive phones and laptops; nurses check in regularly to ensure they are physically and mentally healthy.

Braithwaite says there have been no known COVID-positive test results among this vulnerable demographic, but there have been outbreaks in Toronto shelters.

Of the 200 residents at the Willowdale Welcome Centre shelter, 88 have tested positive for the disease, according to recently released data from Toronto Public Health.

There are plans in coming weeks to open more transitional housing in York Region.

“We are trying to stay one step ahead,” Braithwaite said.

Meantime, the families living in hotel rooms need something more permanent. The region is pursuing a “brilliant idea” from Calgary’s Drop-In Centre that asks landlords to help move people into housing from their emergency overflow space, he said.

Blue Door is reaching out to landlords in York Region who are looking for potential tenants but are facing difficulties in filling these vacancies due to general precautions during the pandemic

The non-profit hopes this non-traditional approach will find safe and affordable housing for 100 people over the next two months

“We want to reach landlords that are able to offer single rooms with shared accommodation from $500 to $800 (all inclusive), and one-two bed apartments for families ranging from $1,000 to $1,700,” he said.

None of these potential tenants have been diagnosed with COVID-19, he said, and Blue Door has put in place comprehensive measures to keep people safe — including providing personal protective equipment for staff and clients during house viewings.

If these new tenants face any challenges, they will have support from Blue Door and their partner agencies.

That could include food and art supplies for the children, cooking and lifeskills lessons if needed, and reusable face masks for when they need to go out into the community. Mental health support will be offered along with help with connecting to their doctor if required and, for seniors especially, if they’re lonely, virtual conferencing and even safe-distancing conversations from the sidewalk.

“If there is any silver lining to this, it’s that people have come to understand how our vulnerable people are so at risk right now. And how much healthier we all could be if people had a place to isolate.”

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