COVID-19 causing 'a perfect storm of issues' for homelessness in Prince Albert

·4 min read

A photo from Prince Albert of people sleeping outside near a vent to stay warm has sparked a discussion about homelessness in the city.

Bev Masuskapoe shared the photo on Facebook on Oct. 26, and it's been shared over 500 times as of Sunday afternoon. The photo was taken behind a Government of Canada building on Central Avenue.

Donna Brooks, CEO of the YWCA in Prince Albert, said she wasn't surprised to see people sleeping outside.

"The shelters are full," she said. "We are continually at capacity and with COVID it's worse because we've had to decrease the number of beds."

The federal government has funded an expansion of its emergency shelter beds in the city through its Reaching Home program, doubling the number of beds available from 10 to 20.

Located at the grandstand at the Exhibition Centre, the new shelter has more space to allow for better physical distancing and is slated to open on Wednesday.

Beds with addiction support needed

Brooks said there are many options for people who need to find shelter in the city but there are fewer beds for people who are struggling with addictions.

"We need more beds that are simply harm reduction where there's no questions asked, where you don't have to qualify," she said. "That is the population that's falling through the cracks. That is the population that's sleeping on the vents."

Before the election, she said there were weekly shelter group meetings with representatives from the provincial government to help form a response to COVID-19, and she said the province has been very supportive of shelters for women and children fleeing domestic violence.

But she said there are fewer options available for men and for women without children.

"We need a commitment from the provincial government to help fund shelter spaces.… We overall do not have enough shelter spaces and we're operating right on the brink all the time."

With the new shelter, there will be a total of 110 beds in Prince Albert, 90 of which are for people who are trying to better their lives, Brooks said.

'People will freeze to death'

Brian Howell, manager of River Bank Development Corporation, said there's "a perfect storm of issues" that are expanding the homeless numbers in Prince Albert this winter.

Howell said some of the places people may have gone to warm up are closed, like restaurants that have moved to pick-up only, and couch surfing is less of an option when people are minimizing their friends and family bubbles.

"Homelessness is primarily an Indigenous issue in our community and that community steps forward to care for their brothers and uncles and grandparents and, you know, friends.… One would think that people are being a little bit more careful."

Several programs have been set up to help the homeless population since COVID-19 hit in March, Howell said, including installing temporary washrooms downtown, creating a program that housed people who had to self-isolate and providing meal programs.

He said he's hopeful organizations in the city have done enough to prepare for winter but notes that it's an evolving situation.

"This is an issue that we really have to keep our eyes upon and move quickly if the numbers start to rise. Because if we don't, you know, there's going to be people in serious circumstances and people will freeze to death."

'We wanted to help'

The photo inspired a group of parents to create a fundraiser and volunteer to help the people sleeping out in the cold.

The Helping Hands group hosted an event on Friday where they handed out warm clothes and food to anyone in need.

"It was really cold," said Ashton Naytowhow, a co-organizer of Helping Hands. "It was freezing rain and howling winds. It was crazy. It really gave us perspective on what these people go through."

We wanted to let those vulnerable people know that there's people here that care. - Ashton Naytowhow, co-organizer of Helping Hands

Naytowhow said about 25 people stopped by to grab items, and nearly as many people stopped to give donations.

"It blew me away," he said. "While we were holding this event, people were stopping, they were asking us what was going on … they would go and grab the supplies that they think we would need."

At first, the group wasn't thinking long-term but now Naytowhow said they're discussing how they can keep their initiative going.

The Helping Hands group consists of Naytowhow, Jonathon Cook, Shelly Laliberte, Reina Morin, Marie Merasty, Jeremiah Jobb, Harmony Nayneecassum, Stephanie Sasakamoose, Jess Bird and Alana Michel.

Naytowhow said that everyone involved in Helping Hands are doing the work in their spare time because they want to make a difference and be role models to their children.

"When we came together, you could just feel the passion," Naytowhow said. "We wanted to help and we wanted to let those vulnerable people know that there's people here that care."

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