4 Ottawa shelters pause new admissions to reduce COVID-19 spread

·3 min read

Four Ottawa homeless shelters say they won't be taking new admissions due to high COVID-19 case numbers at their facilities, a situation one advocate says was bound to eventually happen.

The Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre, Shepherds of Good Hope, Cornerstone Housing for Women and The Ottawa Mission all say they won't be welcoming new people in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

"We are working closely with the City of Ottawa to identify appropriate shelter accommodations for any additional individuals seeking assistance," a joint press release published Friday reads.

"Our organizations are so thankful for the support we have received from our community throughout this pandemic. We recognize that this has been especially hard on people experiencing homelessness or those precariously housed."

All shelter residents who tested positive have been moved to isolation centres, the press release says, with staff who've tested positive isolating at home.

Further testing is planned for all emergency shelters in the upcoming days.

Contact tracing will be conducted for each positive case, with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and Ottawa Inner City Health taking the lead and providing guidance.

According to the public health unit's COVID-19 dashboard, there are five outbreaks at the city's homeless shelters.

Due to privacy concerns, however, OPH does not reveal the names of congregate and specialized care settings when reporting outbreaks.

As of Saturday, one unnamed shelter had 72 cases, with 62 residents and 10 staff testing positive for the virus.

Situation inevitable, says advocate

Despite the best efforts by shelters to add more beds and carve out more space for their clients, the situation was almost unavoidable, said Kaite Burkholder Harris, executive director of Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.

"People do not have enough space, if you don't have your own room or your own space," said Harris.

"It's just extremely difficult to try and not get COVID when the number one way to avoid it is to stay safe and stay home. [In cases] where people don't have a home, they just can't do it."

The decision by the four shelters comes as Ottawa is going through its coldest snap of this winter. According to Environment Canada, overnight temperatures will feel like -34 with the wind chill.

In Montreal, the body of a homeless Innu man was discovered in a portable toilet just steps away from a shelter that was closed for the night in mid-January.

The death has led the federal government to add its voice to those calling on Quebec Premier François Legault to relax how curfew rules are applied to homeless people in his province.

Burkholder Harris says she hopes to avoid a similar death here, and is encouraging those who need help to reach out and spaces will be found for them.

Marc-André Cossette/CBC
Marc-André Cossette/CBC

'A really tricky situation'

The situation involving the shelters also doesn't surprise Dr. Hugues Loemba, a virologist with the Montfort Hospital.

"it's really a really tricky situation," said Loemba, adding that it's now time to boost testing and tracking of the virus.

"We also need to make sure this is not related to [a] new variant of COVID-19. So this should be tracked and checked."

In an email, the City of Ottawa cited a Thursday memo to council — issued after an outbreak at the Ottawa Mission was declared but before Friday's joint decision — that set out its efforts to increase shelter capacity, including opening a 100-bed facility for men at the Ottawa Jail Hostel ahead of schedule.

Anyone who needs assistance finding shelter should call 311, the statement said.