Advocates say COVID-19 will spread like 'wildfire' through homeless population unless government steps up

Those trying to get Saskatoon's most vulnerable people to safety during the COVID-19 pandemic say the slow response from Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services is putting people at risk. 

Earlier in March, two Essential Service Hubs were established in Saskatoon to help the city's homeless and hard-to-house populations access shelter and other services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the Salvation Army Temple on Bateman Crescent and the White Buffalo Youth Lodge on 20th are serving as locations.

Colleen Christopherson-Cote, incident lead with the Saskatoon Community Response to COVID-19, says while communication and commitments started out well with the Ministry of Social Services, it has gradually dropped off, leaving organizers in a lurch. 

"Things have been changing almost hourly," said Christopherson-Cote, who is also a co-lead of the Safe Community Action Alliance. "Those connections have changed and the commitment to follow through on things the Ministry of Social Services has said they could do for us have diminished and so there's a fair amount of frustration in the sector." 

Reducing capacity reduces funding too

She explained while many of the city's most vulnerable regularly access shelters through organizations like the Salvation Army, many of them have reduced their capacity to ensure best physical distancing practices can continue.

Christopherson-Cote said this is a critical move to keeping COVID-19 out of the vulnerable population. She said however, due to the fact shelters are funded based on the number of beds they have in place, they're also seeing their funding reduced. 

"You can't run a shelter with half of the funding," she said. 

Organizers want to see the government implement a model where shelters are funded as if they were at max capacity, even though they're not housing as many residents. They'd also like to see dedicated hotels to be used for long-term self-isolation housing as the pandemic continues.

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The Ministry has allowed for "night-by-night" stays, but Christopherson-Cote says it's little help, as the need remains the next day. 

"We need a block of hotels and a process so that we can get people into those hotels, stable and wrap services around them so they can stay isolated," she said.

She said they're also dealing with a roughly 10-day delay when it comes to applications for social assistance in Saskatchewan, which has also slowed the entire process.

CBC Saskatoon requested an interview with an official from social services on Saturday, but a statement was provided instead.

In the statement, the Ministry of Social Services' executive director of Income Assistance Delivery, Jeff Redekop, said the province is taking steps to try and protect the province's most vulnerable. 

"We are all working hard to develop strategies that will help Saskatchewan people affected by this crisis, including how to connect and maintain people in need to short and long-term housing options," he said in the statement.

"Saskatchewan's emergency shelters, food banks and other partners who serve vulnerable people, all have a vital role to play in this current situation."

Emergency hotel stays

In the statement, he explained the government is providing funds for emergency hotel stays when emergency shelters cannot meet the needs of an individual or family because of "capacity, illness or a requirement by public health to self-isolate and provide additional resources where appropriate."

The referrals are also being distributed on behalf of Social Services through mobile crisis services and the Salvation Army. 

"Social Services will continue to work with Saskatchewan's network of emergency shelter providers to ensure those who are homeless and lack the means to pay for their basic needs are served," the statement continued.

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Major Mike Hoeft, the area commander of Saskatchewan with the Salvation Army, says they have reduced capacity at both their shelters in Regina and Saskatoon to ensure physical distancing can occur, and said both are at the limit of their reduced capacity.

He said the Salvation Army has a good relationship with its funding partner in the Ministry of Social Services, noting case workers are still working with clients to ensure applications are being filled out and people are being connected to services. 

Hoeft explained they will continue to work with social services to provide their clients. For those coming into the shelters, the situation is an unprecedented one.  

"It's a very difficult time for everybody trying to figure this whole thing out and respond accordingly," he said.

"It's changed the way we do business to a degree, but essentially, we're still trying to make sure all of the people that come within our ministries are looked after to the best of our ability."

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Lack of phone, internet access a barrier

In the statement, the Government of Saskatchewan indicated those who suspected of having COVID-19 and lack money to meet their basic needs should apply for any federal benefits they might be eligible for. Those needing immediate emergency help, such as food and shelter, can contact the local service centre, their worker or the client service centre at 1-866-221-5200.

"Please note that we have shifted more staff to the call centre to ensure we can help those in need," the statement noted.

However Jason Mercredi, who is one of the Hub leads with Saskatoon Community Response, said if the government doesn't act soon, it may be too late, as many people don't have access to a phone or internet and can no longer access services physically due to mass closures. 

"We're seeing a lot of bureaucratic talk, and we're not really seeing a lot of action and as a result, we're quite worried that once COVID hits the homeless population, it's going to spread like wildfire." 

He said as a result, he fears the the virus will become entrenched in the homeless community, and with them having little access to public spaces, like libraries, it'll only spread further through the city. 

"They're having to go to the only public spaces available, which is grocery stores and banks, and so it means that if COVID gets into the homeless population, it is going to get into the rest of the population much quicker." 

Mercredi says the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency and should be treated as such. 

"We really need government to step up," he said.