Sask. councillor, industry want homeless people put up in hotels during COVID-19 outbreak

Calls for Saskatchewan to rent hotel rooms for homeless people as a way to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus are growing louder.

On Monday, Calgary announced a plan to move homeless people into hotel rooms to reduce the number of people living in shelters.

Ontario has also committed money to house homeless people in hotels.

"I think this plan needs to be put into place before the end of next week," said Regina city councillor Andrew Stevens.

"To be honest with you, the surge is needed right now."

Stevens said the city has already been in touch with the provincial hotel association and several hotels to move the situation forward. Regina has begun talks with the provincial government on the plan, but so far no official commitments have been made.

"We cannot do it without them," said Stevens.

"This will fall flat on its face if they don't step up and actually start developing a proper housing first triage model of getting people in there."

'We can start to enact this'

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Hotels and Hospitality Association said they're all in favour of the plan.

"We've had great discussions so far with Ministry of Health and Red Cross and are starting to put together a plan," said association president Jim Bence.

"Rather than be like some of the countries that were absolutely overwhelmed overnight, we can start to enact this."

Bence said hotels would also be open to taking in people from hospitals who need non-emergency medical care.

"There's discussions about how we can migrate folks in distress into our hotels so that they at least have some accommodation."

Saskatoon group launches resource hub

In a matter of days, the Safe Community Action Alliance in Saskatoon has pulled together a housing team, a youth team, a food team, and a resource hub — as well as administration and logistics for the whole operation.

On Wednesday, the group opened up the first of three hubs where people who are struggling can go get the resources they need to get help.

"At the hub, you can get access to income assistance support, health support, and get in contact with folks that the vulnerable populations … are accustomed to working with," said Colleen Christopherson-Cote, one of the co-leads for the Safe Community Action Alliance, a collaborative group that involves 35 agencies in the city.

The hub that opened Wednesday is at White Buffalo Youth Lodge on 20th Street, and the second one set to open is at the Salvation Army Temple on Bateman Avenue. Those hubs are open between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The housing and homelessness team is working in close proximity with the hub team to make sure the shelter system doesn't become inundated.

"There's a mechanism in that structure where we can keep track of what apartments are open," Christopherson-Cote said. 

"If and when the shelters are filled or cannot take anyone else, we're going to need to figure out a mechanism where people who need temporary shelter can go."

She says the organization has already contacted hotels about what that might look like and she says the conversations are going well.

'Exposing an already existing housing crisis'

Bence said many hotels in the province are suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic and would appreciate any extra business they could get.

"Business just evaporated overnight," said Bence.

"It was everything from our leisure travellers, like families and sports teams, to every group booking on the corporate side."

Stevens said he hopes the move — if it's successful — will ignite more political will for finding permanent housing for homeless people.

"I'm hoping that this is exposing an already existing housing crisis and problem in Saskatchewan," he said.

"None of these issues are new. And the people that were homeless today were likely homeless by some definition yesterday and the day before."