by Darren Jerome

Roughly one year into COVID, it is difficult to think of anything that has been left untouched. Although some things, regrettably, remain unchanged. The need for homelessness support in our communities is one of them. According to Homeless Hub, on any given day approximately 35,000 Canadians look to community services for meals, shelter and special assistance in order to improve their present situation or, sometimes, just to make it through another day. Providing these services has only become more difficult and even dangerous during the pandemic — yet interviews with service providers in Ottawa show they continue to do heroic work during trying times.

It is difficult to put exact numbers to homelessness in Ottawa during the pandemic, since the city has yet to release homelessness statistics for 2020. Yet earlier statistics show that the total number of people using an emergency shelter in the city has gone up 25% from 2014 to 2019, and it seems safe to assume this has only increased during the pandemic.  In a February 12 survey by the Canadian Association To End Homelessness (CAEH), 76% of shelters reported that “all” or “nearly all” of their beds or units were in use.

(Credit: Crystal Yung)

What light has COVID’s great reveal shone on those people and institutions whose job it is to care for our homeless population, in spite of these unprecedented challenges and pressures?

The work, in short, has never been easy. Shelter space is a limiting factor, as the number of beds, in particular, has not kept pace with the need. Caroline Cox is the Communications Director of the Shepherds of Good Hope, a 268-bed homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa that provides specialized programs in harm reduction in addition to addressing complex needs. As Cox points out, “We were in a state of emergency months before the pandemic even hit. At times our occupancy would reach 300. People [slept] on mats in every available space.”

Then the pandemic hit. 

“Last February brought a fundamental change overnight,” says Cox. The pandemic meant the immediate introduction of PPE, “sourced through the Salvation Army and Ottawa Inner City Health by our incredibly resourceful Facilities Department”. This was coupled with the “implementation of social distancing measures in what were essentially social spaces”. 

“Pressures continued to increase with the risk of further spread,” explains Caroline Cox of the Shepherds of Good Hope.

Ray Eskritt is the Executive Director of Harmony House, Ottawa’s only second stage transitional shelter, which provides housing and support services for survivors of domestic violence. Eskritt describes her organization’s challenges at the start of the pandemic. “Our programming, most of it being in person, was abruptly put on hold. We worked hard to build and sustain relationships online but,” she points out, “it was hard when so much of our work relies on relationship-building and social interaction.”

The interactive nature of work within the shelters changed in other ways as well. “We constantly educate on safety, oftentimes addressing various conspiracy theories regarding the cause and legitimacy of the pandemic,” explains Matthew Barton, a public health nurse supporting isolation hotels for those in shelters with confirmed or suspected COVID cases.

Faced with limited resources, challenges are typically met through a combination of empathy and creative problem-solving. Eskritt cites a number of initiatives that stand out. “We shifted to Zoom for one-on-one and group sessions,” she says, adding, “we organized fun events such as virtual painting sessions and scavenger hunts. And we’ve enlisted the help of Early Childhood Education (ECE) expertise and online tutors to help kids with their online learning.” 

The story of how staff at the Shepherds provided meals in the rain might be a good metaphor for the current situation. “Meals were served outside in order to safely accommodate everyone,” Cox recalls. “Before we had tents we were at the mercy of the elements. On one occasion, a storm hit unexpectedly and we had to scramble to find and distribute whatever protection we could against the pouring rain.” What was most affecting for many of the staff was the appreciation that was shown. “The level of gratefulness was profound,” recalls Cox. 

(Credit: Crystal Yung)

With fall came a need to further enhance safety protocols for indoor facilities, a need that was further amplified by the second wave. “Pressures continued to increase with the risk of further spread,” explains Cox. As a result, smaller groups were given access to the dining area at any one time. Groups cycled through quickly in order to ensure that everyone could be safely fed within a reasonable amount of time. 

The dangerous specter of drug use represents an even greater concern. Fueled by fear, depression, and isolation, opiate use has grown. Drug-related deaths in Ontario  totalled 1,018 in 2020 — a 50% increase over the previous year, according to a recent Public Health Ontario report. Tragically, most are accidental. 

It is an issue that remains top-of-mind for all shelter staff. “The crisis has been exasperated by the poorer quality of available substances,” Barton relates. Meanwhile, outreach teams remain on the street, providing the necessities of life, including safe injections. But it is not always easy to keep people from harming themselves. “Many are in survival mode,” he says. 

Not surprisingly, the triple threat of homelessness, opioid abuse, and COVID has taken its toll on shelter staff. Working long hours under the continual threat of transmission has led to increased turnover. “It’s been particularly hard on those providing peer support [volunteers who were previously homeless] and harm reduction [recovered substance abusers],” says Barton. 

There are also situations, unique to the pandemic, that regularly add to the strain. “Our staff are sometimes forced to make near-impossible choices regarding permitting access to those who may introduce further risk,” explains Cox. 

This strain is further evidenced through preliminary survey findings from a study commissioned by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Since the pandemic began, the survey states, just over one half of all service providers have felt less effective in their jobs. An even greater percentage (83%) have felt that their mental health has declined, while 89% of service providers report that their stress levels have increased.

But have there been glimmers of hope? The short answer is yes. Teams of dedicated professionals continue to rise to the challenge. Those The Leveller interviewed speak of an even closer bond with colleagues who collectively understand the importance of their work, and of the camaraderie that forms through adversity. “I could not be more proud,” says Eskritt. “Our people are unwavering in their commitment and determination to help. At one point, we even introduced online therapy in order to help staff through their own deep frustrations at being unable to fully support our clients.”

And there have been notable examples of community support. Cox points to an outreach program the Shepherds of Good Hope ran this past Christmas, when community and local business donations exceeded expectations by over $15,000. What’s more, the campaign coupled requests for donation with a well-wisher card that could be filled in and returned. The response, both financial and moral, was evidenced by the massive numbers of cards and messages that were returned along with donations. In addition, thousands of homemade masks have been donated to the Shepherds since the start of the pandemic. 

A firmer commitment to addressing homelessness also seems to be emerging at all levels of government, as evidenced most dramatically by the $1 Billion Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) announced by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in September, 2020. According to this announcement, the RHI is intended to be a “rapid response to emerging pressures from COVID-19” that will quickly create affordable housing where “the majority of these funds will be committed to projects in 2020-21.” This is part of the National Housing Strategy (NHS) that the federal Liberals announced in 2017, with promises to spend more than $55 billion on affordable housing over ten years. 

The federal government has also earmarked pandemic spending of $157.5 million (in April, 2020) and then $236.6 million (in September) for organizations serving homeless people, through the program it calls Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, which was launched in April, 2019.

Shelters in Ottawa have taken advantage of some of this funding. Funding through the Rapid Housing Initiative and National Housing Strategy has also led to recent announcements for the construction of additional supporting housing units in Ottawa, consisting of 40 units at 216 Murray and 8 at 145 Castlefrank and 42 units at 765 Montreal Road.

The significance of this renewed effort and investment is not lost on Caroline Cox. “I’m more optimistic now than I’ve been at any time in my 13 years of service,” she states. Ray Eskritt shares this optimism, but is a little more guarded. “My hope is that they don’t pull back on this much-needed funding once the pandemic ends.”

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