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COVID-19 Drives Increased Needs—and Help—for Homeless

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The COVID-19 crisis doubled the number of people looking for beds in St. John’s homeless shelters, but an injection of nearly $1 million from the federal government will help shelters meet that demand, says Doug Pawson, End Homelessness St. John’s executive director.

In doing so, it shows that ending homelessness in St. John’s is an attainable goal, he added.

“It is not lost on me for one minute that I think we can take a great lesson from this and work with our community partners and our provincial government to be the next community to end homelessness,” he told the Independent. “I think this is highlighting how we can all work together in a very collaborative way to make a plan for the future.”

End Homelessness St. John’s (EHSJ) announced Monday it was receiving an extra $979,034 to support a COVID-19 strategy within the city’s shelters. The pandemic has put extra pressure on St. John’s homeless shelters, leaving more people without a place to sleep while reducing the number of shelter employees in the facilities themselves, Pawson said.

People who would normally be crashing on couches or occupying spare rooms are increasingly unwelcome in their regular night spots because of social distancing and COVID-19 concerns, Pawson said. That’s good social distancing practice right now and absolutely necessary, but it means that shelters have more people on their doorsteps looking for a place to sleep.

The workers in those shelters are also not considered essential workers, he said. That means that as demand is going up, the staff capacity is shrinking. That’s something he thinks should change.

“I think the state of emergency that we saw in January shone the light really brightly on the fact that our non-profit and community sector provides such essential services to our most vulnerable neighbours. And when we don’t have those supports in place, we lose a lot of capacity,” he said.

Pawson says that before COVID-19, an average night would see 80-90 people looking for a bed at city’s shelters, and that was manageable—“We were never over capacity.” But those numbers have doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The money from the federal government will mean the city’s shelters can cope with uptick, he said. “We’re going to see our capacity extended beyond what we’ve ever seen in St. John’s.”

Working with local hotels, EHSJ has now secured two additional sites to house current clients and anyone else needing shelter. One of those will be dedicated to clients needing to isolate or needing COVID-19 testing. (For privacy reasons, Pawson can’t say which hotels EHSJ is working with or where the sites are.) A few other contingency sites are also on deck if they’re needed, he said.

The federal money will also allow EHSJ to pay for transportation to and from those sites as well as meals, personal protective equipment and support for on-site workers to help folks follow isolation protocols. As recommended by community partners like the Downtown Health Collaborative, EHSJ will provide isolating shelter clients with cigarettes, phone cards and entertainment to keep them in quarantine. 

“We want to make sure that people are abiding by the guidelines and protocols. For folks that have complex issues—complex mental health issues, physical disability issues, substance abuse issues—we need to accommodate them because if we don’t, those are the individuals that are more susceptible to acquiring and transmitting COVID-19 amongst the community population. If we can provide those types of incentives which are being recommended by physicians who work really closely with this population then we should,” he said. 

Pawson says the community effort behind all this, from the partnering organizations to the local food businesses supplying meals—coupled with the urgency the COVID-19 crisis has placed on proper housing supports—shows that ending homelessness in St. John’s is both critical and possible.

“We know we need more adequate supportive housing options for individuals so that they don’t rely on shelters exclusively or that they don’t find themselves rough sleeping or couch surfing. We know we need options for a variety of issues … not just individuals with complex mental health issues, but also folks who are involved in sex work,” he said. “We know we have to make sure that long term, we’re continuing to advocate for housing for individuals in our community.”

Photo via End Homelessness St. John’s.

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