This pandemic will continue to shine a light on all of the fractured social issues that existed prior to the pandemic. It is up to us to decide how we respond.
By Jill Wiwcharuk
Published May 12, 2020
The global pandemic that has turned our lives upside down has affected every one of us in different ways. The message is to stay home to keep yourself and others safe. But for those among us who do not have homes, this presents challenges.
Hamilton has done an admirable job in its response to COVID-19 among the homeless population. More shelter beds have been created, hotels are being utilized, an incredibly patient-centred system for COVID testing of people experiencing homelessness has been instituted and an appreciation of the importance of harm reduction throughout it all has prevailed.
This has all been carried out by a group of city staff, social service agencies, health care groups and people with lived experience who meet regularly to discuss the issues. Bravo Hamilton!
The focus to date has been on people who choose to use shelters. However, a growing number of people experiencing homelessness do not access shelters. These are the people sleeping rough (outside) in parks, on street corners, school properties or elsewhere.
There is a variety of reasons why some people avoid shelters, but added to the list now is the increased risk of contracting COVID while living in a congregate setting. As the weather improves, we are likely to continue seeing an increase in people choosing to sleep rough for the coming months.
We need to base our response to this with medical evidence and compassion. Clearing homeless encampments is now, more than ever, not the solution to the homeless crisis in our city. The American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued the following recommendation:
Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.
When outreach workers make connections with folks and start the process of gaining trust and identifying needs, it is extremely important for these connections to grow, not to be fractured when they are told to move along.
The moment the pandemic shut down our city, people sleeping rough lost the places they use to stay warm, their toilets to use, their showers and sinks to clean in. Many drop-in centres shuttered their doors, access to clean needles supplies and Narcan was greatly reduced and many community meal programs stopped.
Now we regularly meet people who soil themselves due to lack of access to toilets. Others get tickets for urinating in public. There are no showers to use and no laundry facilities to wash soiled clothing. They often have to choose between leaving their possessions unattended to find some food or staying to protect their belongings and going hungry.
As they start settling into one place and finding routines that will allow them to engage with outreach workers on health and social issues, we cannot be telling them to pack up and move along. It is no longer just an affront to their human dignity, it is a public health risk due to potential spread of COVID-19.
As the number of people sleeping rough grows, our response needs to grow with it. Our city is lucky to have an incredible group of skilled and passionate outreach workers from various organizations but they will need more support and staff.
One set of porta-potties on a street corner in the inner city is a good starting point but there needs to be more. Some churches have opened their doors to homeless individuals for a few hours every day of the week as resting and hygiene centres but again, more is needed.
We can choose whether this crisis brings out the best or the worst in us as a society. So far, I am seeing it bring out the best. There have been so many creative initiatives connecting people with the help they need.
In regards to homeless encampments, I implore Hamiltonians to have both compassion and patience. Most times, people in encampments are told to move on when complaints are made.
If you see someone sleeping outside, please know that this is not their first choice. Their first choice is sleeping in their own bed, with easy access to a bathroom and to food, in a place where they feel safe and secure. Instead of picking up the phone to complain, consider picking up a loaf of fresh bread for them, maybe a Tim Horton's card or even just give them a smile when you walk by.
Know that we are working hard on helping everyone who is living on the street gain access to healthcare, social supports and housing. COVID-19 will continue to shine a light on all of the fractured social issues that existed prior to the pandemic. It is up to us to decide how we respond.
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