‘It’s not rocket science’: Protecting Ottawa’s homeless amid COVID-19

26 May 2020


When Ottawa city councillors declared a homelessness and affordable housing emergency on Jan. 29, it seemed like things were beginning to look up for the city’s homeless population. But just two months later, COVID-19 hit.

Citizens are encouraged to stay home as much as possible to avoid increasing the spread of COVID-19, but this recommendation leaves almost 8,000 Ottawans experiencing homelessness vulnerable.

“Some people don’t actually have a home and cannot safely distance from others,” Somerset Ward city councillor Catherine McKenney said.

“It certainly has highlighted for us the gross inequities in society between those who are housed and who aren’t,” McKenney, council’s liaison on housing and homelessness, said.

The federal government is spending $5.6 million to help Ottawa’s homeless during the pandemic, but advocates say more help is needed.

Washroom facilities is one issue those living on the streets are facing now, McKenney said. With community partners, McKenney installed portable toilets on Bank Street and Elgin Street to help provide sanitation for all.

“It's the bare minimum we should be doing,” McKenney said, adding there have been increased protocols around the cleaning of those washrooms.

Stu Pitts, a 31-year-old public speaker who previously experienced homelessness in Ottawa, said he was also concerned for bathroom accommodations while businesses are closed due to COVID-19.

“I’ve been wondering where everyone’s been going to the bathroom, like I pretty much always used like a Starbucks or Tim Hortons bathroom or something — and they’re all closed,” Pitts said of living on the streets.

“There needs to be a lot more public water resources and like bathrooms and stuff available to people at all hours of the night,” he added.

Even if those living on the street access a shelter bathroom, Pitts said there are still sanitation challenges amid COVID-19.

“You can't really social distance at a shelter,” he said. “Where you go to clean yourself is not necessarily free of contamination.”

While the pandemic has presented challenges for shelters, communications director of the Ottawa Mission, Aileen Leo, said the organization has tried to adapt as best it can to new health regulations.

“We are still open,” Leo said. “So if you are homeless, or you're a community member and you need support, you can still come to the mission.”

“But, we've had to scale back things,” she added.

Leo said scaling back involved virtually touring potential housing, online programming, reduced dining room seating, takeout meals, and having only one doorway where all clients are screened before entering.

The organization sends those with symptoms of COVID-19 to the Routhier Community Centre in Lowertown until they have completed 14 days of self-isolation.

Leo also said all staff are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) including gowns, gloves, and face shields.

Pitts said he hopes community support, such as McNabb arena which recently began providing showers and meals for those living on the streets, continues long after COVID-19.

“Maybe all homeless people should get free gym passes — it's somewhere to go out of the weather and you can shower,” he said.

While housing is important, Pitts added resources beyond renting vacant hotel rooms — which the Ottawa government has done for the past few years to house those living on the streets — are necessary to protect the city’s homeless population.

“It’s going to get worse,” Pitts said of the lack of affordable housing in the city.

“They need to do rent forgiveness, or they’re just delaying another housing crisis in the future — and there aren’t enough hotels for all of us,” he added.

Funding for housing was stated as a major priority in the federal government’s national housing strategy in 2017, but McKenney said actual financing has yet to take place.

Even if people are sheltered, Pitts said they won’t have money to cover basic needs because many would not meet the $5,000 income requirement for the monthly $2,000 Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“You’d have to go out and panhandle to get by still — you’d still be highly at risk,” Pitts said.

Even if panhandlers make enough money, many businesses are no longer accepting cash due to COVID-19.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Pitts said. “Homeless people are being more represented as a public health risk to the population — instead of a population that is at-risk during the crisis.”

McKenney said if the city doesn’t act now to protect the homeless, it will pay in the future.

“In the end, [helping the homeless ...] saves an exceptional amount of money all around, so it's short-sighted when governments don't take action,” they said.

Although it will take work to overcome the city’s housing crisis, McKenney said a solution is achievable.

“It's complex, but it's certainly not rocket science,” they said. “Nobody's asking us to, you know, come up with a cure for cancer or COVID.”

“They're asking us to house people, and we know how to do that.”

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