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This is not a game. Hotels are the only defence for homeless people in a pandemic

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Image: Contributed photo

It began in California. State and local officials planned to lease hotels and motels to shelter and protect thousands of homeless people from COVID-19. The initial focus was on California's seven largest counties: Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Clara, Orange and Alameda. Other American cities have followed suit.

In England, public unrest at the country's poor response to protect homeless people resulted in a similar approach. According to the The Guardian

"In practical terms, protecting the UK’s population of homeless people and rough sleepers by offering safe space to self-isolate means that up to 45,000 "self-contained accommodation spaces" need to be urgently found.

Empty hotels have been pinpointed as a ready-made solution because they have separate cleaning facilities and rooms, and can be leased by the government using funding allocated to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Modelling by University College London found that placing vulnerable groups in hotels was also significantly more cost effective than treating individuals in hospital."

Some Canadian cities and towns have also adapted the practice.

Vancouver is securing hotels, albeit for isolating people after they are infected.

The Calgary Herald reported: 

"Earlier this week, Mayor Naheed Nenshi called the undertaking to protect homeless Calgarians 'the greatest public issue we're facing today.' The city announced last week that local motel and hotel rooms would be used to house people who have been living in shelters. The provincial government has also allocated $60 million for charitable and non-profit groups, including shelters, to support vulnerable populations."

Sadly, politics put a hold on this program, citing funding as the reason.

In Ontario, mid-sized cities such as Hamilton, Barrie, Orillia, Peterborough and Guelph are all using hotels/motels, or are planning to.

Some city managers refreshingly state the obvious and take action.

"Shelters do not have the space or physical structure that allows for isolation and social distancing that are crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, said Lori Richer, housing stability manager for County of Wellington Social Services (Guelph)."

American researchers predict that in this pandemic: 

  • Homeless people infected with COVID-19 will be twice as likely to be hospitalized as the non-homeless population.
  • They will be two to four times as likely to require critical care.
  • They will be two to three times as likely to die.

Toronto COVID-19 modelling suggests we can expect 800 to 1,200 homeless people testing positive at any given time. Despite long-documented shelter overcrowding, a heavy burden of chronic illness and a significant senior population, Toronto persists in resisting to using upstream measures to protect homeless people.

Instead, homeless people are left in dangerously overcrowded shelters to fend for themselves. So are the workers, not prioritized for personal protective equipment or given adequate health supports.

Many health, mental health and addiction supports have withdrawn from shelters due to the pandemic, shifting the way they have to work. Public health nurses have not been seconded to shelters and drop-ins to assist in training, screening or triage.

New temporary shelters that have opened in Toronto are primarily in empty community centre gyms but only for the purpose of moving people out of the city's second tier of shelters known as 24-hour respites and 24-hour overnight drop-ins. In a pandemic, these sites remain crowded.

While Toronto has now secured a hotel for homeless people, it is for recovery after they've been infected.

Meanwhile, Toronto's own shelter standards stipulate 0.75 metres between beds, and allows bunk beds. That's far from the two-metre distancing we are all supposed to follow. The mantra to stay home, ensure two metres of physical distance, stay away from crowds of 50 (now five) -- as Ontario introduced -- is impossible in a shelter.

There does not appear to be a proactive plan to move people out of shelters into hotels or empty student residences.

It is discriminatory to tell one sector of the population to "stay home" and "physically distance," and leave another sector of the population in circumstances that put them at risk.

I will be blunt. Given what many of us see and know, hotels are the only short-term prevention measure that provides protection in a pandemic until longer-term housing actions take place.

Hotels are mostly empty. So are student residences. They can be leased, expropriated or purchased depending on their size. This will keep hotel workers employed and it will keep homeless people safe. Agencies can provide support teams for their normal function.

However, to be clear, we will have to mount large demonstrations, rallies and protests for housing, once we can all gather again. Federal withdrawal from social housing is what got us in this mess. Let's see a new surge of housing similar to post-Second World War.

And to the feds -- you don't have to wait!

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues.

Image: Contributed photo

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