Ottawa’s shelters were in a perilous position this past winter, with about one-quarter of the clients contracting COVID-19.
At some points of the coldest months, all of the city’s single adult shelters were in a COVID-19 outbreak which meant that normal shelter operations were frozen and it was challenging to ensure there were enough spaces for everyone seeking shelter.
The City of Ottawa worked in partnership with the shelters, Ottawa Inner City Health and Ottawa Public Health, to deal with the situation. The dilemma was how to prevent further transmission of the virus while still making sure that about 850 people experiencing homelessness had a place to get food, a bed to sleep in, and other supports. An added challenge was that shelter clients with COVID-19 were largely asymptomatic. The situation was made even more complicated by the deteriorating mental health status and increase in problematic substance use among people experiencing homelessness.
In response, the City’s Human Needs Task Force created physical distancing centres which provided new shelter beds to ease the crowding in the community single adult shelters and mitigate the spread of the virus.
The Human Needs Task Force also created an isolation centre, run by Ottawa Inner City Health, so that people who had COVID-19 would have a place to stay and recover from the illness.
Because of the urgency and fluid nature of the situation, the City met daily with all the single adult shelter providers, Ottawa Inner City Health and Ottawa Public Health, to strategize and ensure that there was always a bed available for those in need.
Strategies included quickly turning the Tom Brown Arena into an overnight temporary single adult shelter, opening a larger isolation centre for clients with COVID-19, and isolating parts of the single adult shelter buildings to reduce the chance of virus transmission.
“It was a worst-case scenario but we adapted. Anybody needing shelter in the city had a warm and safe place to go,” said Christopher Tuck, of the City’s Human Needs Task Force. “No one slept out in the cold who didn’t want to. And there were no tragedies as a result. We worked with our community partners and took care of people who needed to be taken care of.”
When vaccines started to become available, Ottawa Inner City Health worked with Ottawa Public Health and the City’s Human Needs Task Force to get provincial government permission to vaccinate single adult shelter clients and staff as soon as possible, given the high number of cases in those shelters. The Ontario Vaccine Distribution Task Force agreed.
In the first days of March, Ottawa Inner City Health began holding vaccination clinics at the single adult shelters which were welcomed by clients and staff. By early April, between 60 and 80 per cent of the shelter clients, and more than 95 per cent of staff, were protected against COVID-19 with a first vaccine dose.
Administering vaccines is an ongoing activity, as new people come into the shelter system daily, as well as people who are housed but using the shelters’ day services. The vaccination rate remains high – as high as 100% of clients in some locations – and there is never more than a handful who are not double-vaccinated.
The vaccination project and following public health protocols for cleaning, distancing and mask wearing are being credited for ending the shelter outbreaks and saving lives.
For the team at Ottawa Inner City Health, much of their time and effort were spent testing for COVID-19, tracking people and isolating positive cases to limit further transmission, and managing isolation facilities. “It was exhausting,” said Inner City Chief Executive Officer Wendy Muckle. “When the vaccines came, it was like sunshine breaking through dark clouds. Vaccination brought something that we had not seen for a year ─ hope.”