Advocates say COVID-19 outbreak at Windsor homeless shelter was 'inevitable'

·3 min read

A COVID-19 outbreak at a Windsor homelessness shelter has another organization concerned it's only "a matter of time" before it experiences the same.

A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at The Salvation Army Center of Hope in Windsor by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit on Dec. 27 — it's the region's first homelessness shelter to be experiencing one. It's unclear how many cases are tied to the outbreak.

It is one one 44 other places in outbreak across Windsor-Essex as of Tuesday.

The Salvation Army did not want to provide an interview, but in an emailed statement to CBC News, it said it is working with the local health unit and "following all established protocols and processes."

The outbreak has executive director of Windsor's Downtown Mission Ron Dunn worried that his place will soon be next.

"I believe that it's probably just a matter of time. We're still feeding 150 to 200 people three times a day," he said. "Where are these folks when they're not here? ... I have no idea. Are they being socially distant? Are they wearing their masks? I don't know. So yeah, it's definitely a concern for our staff and volunteers."

Dale Molnar/CBC News
Dale Molnar/CBC News

Advocates say they aren't surprised about the outbreak, considering the public health barriers encountered by people experiencing homelessness.

"I expected it, because when you're dealing with homelessness, they're coming across a lot of barriers," Valente said. "They might not have access to proper hand sanitation and they're in close quarters ... they're all together ... they're outside, they're in the close circle of friends and even when they're in the facilities, they are eating together."

She added that they don't always have access to the most up to date information or guidance from public health.

"I think it's inevitable because when you're in the mission and you're in shelter, yes, they are doing everything they can do to eliminate the spread of disease but ... once [the people] leave the facilities it's hard to track who's wearing a mask? Who's using hand sanitization? Who's using social distancing?"

Currently, the Downtown Mission has not had a COVID-19 outbreak, though Dunn says they did have a positive case last week that forced him and his staff to get tested.

'We can't close'

If an outbreak were to take place, Dunn says unlike other industries, they can't just stop offering services because people depend on them.

Tony Smyth/CBC
Tony Smyth/CBC

"We can't close, I can't imagine what happens to up to 200 people, three times a day with no food or shelter," Dunn said. "We don't have the luxury of saying 'well we're in an outbreak.' The show must go on, the work must continue. It's not like we can send them somewhere else."

He said they'll continue to follow public health guidelines, but that they can't just shut down and leave people stranded or without supports.

Valente agreed with Dunn and said there's no alternative.

"It would have to be business as usual, the alternative is being out in the cold and freezing to death," she said, adding that she's not sure what else can be done at this time as shelters are doing their best to keep health protocols in place.