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Mark O'Connell keeps little more than a video-game system and a couple of paperback fantasy novels in his room in the hotel shelter.Carlos Osorio/Carlos Osorio

It’s the simple things Mark O’Connell appreciates about the hotel room he now calls home. He can open his window and let in the fresh air at night. The king-size bed is so large he can sleep sideways if he likes. He doesn’t have to line up for the bathroom.

The dark, worn carpets of this aging hotel room, where Mr. O’ Connell keeps little more than a video-game system and a couple of paperback fantasy novels, might not impress some travellers. But they are a long way from the encampments and crowded homeless shelters where Mr. O’Connell, 52, has lived off and on for years.

“This is glorious, man,” he says, smiling as he gives a reporter and a photographer a physically distanced tour of his accommodations. “This is fantastic.”

The fact that Mr. O’Connell is standing here at all – and now awaiting a permanent apartment – is a kind of positive byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the emergency forced the House of Friendship shelter in Kitchener, Ont., to shut down its conventional, packed four-to-a-room facility downtown and move into five floors of a 12-storey hotel across town.

Other jurisdictions have also made similar use of hotel rooms to spread out their homeless shelter population and spare it from COVID-19: British Columbia has both bought and leased hotels as shelters, and Toronto, while scrambling to allow for physical distancing in its large shelter network, moved about 2,000 people into leased hotel rooms.

Some who work with the homeless, including the team at House of Friendship, say the crisis has actually ended up demonstrating a new, improved model for emergency shelters that allows homeless people the space and dignity they need to get their chaotic lives under control and prepare themselves for a life inside, off the streets.

But not everyone applauds this born-of-necessity idea. Some critics say it is wrong to offer only a temporary substitute for real housing. Activists in Toronto object to that city’s tendency to offer hotel rooms in far-flung suburban areas, saying this isolates the homeless from supervised drug-use sites and other services they need.

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Housing director of House of Friendship, Jessica Bondy, shows a window which has art and thank you letters to her staff, from men who use the hotel shelter.Carlos Osorio/Carlos Osorio

Jessica Bondy, the House of Friendship’s housing director, says her organization had been planning to pitch a new vision for a hotel-like shelter combined with a medical clinic to replace its aging downtown facility, even before COVID-19. The pandemic meant changing on the fly, moving across town 24 hours after signing a lease, as fears mounted that homeless shelters could face the same type of deadly disaster as Ontario’s long-term care homes. So far, not a single Kitchener shelter resident has tested positive for the virus. But Ms. Bondy says the new way of doing things at her shelter is also making other, more transformative differences.

At the old shelter, residents were kicked out at 9 a.m. every day, in all kinds of weather, to fend for themselves on the streets and in soup kitchens and drop-in centres – as is typical with many crowded shelters across Canada. In the hotel, the homeless people can stay in their rooms, or come and go as they please, although curfew is 11 p.m. To avoid crowded cafeteria settings, food is delivered to each door: The kitchen staff, Ms. Bondy jokes, have become a mini Uber Eats.

In addition to the extra space and privacy – most of the rooms have two residents, but some men are in single rooms – the new shelter model has room for other services, such as a medical clinic and addiction counselling, and a captive audience of homeless people to use them.

In a former meeting room in the basement, a makeshift medical centre sees about 20 residents a day seeking harm-reduction drug-use kits, basic health care, addiction counselling and even (by video conference) psychiatric care. There are music classes, and art produced by residents is posted in a corner of the lobby of what is a largely empty but still operational hotel for a trickle of other paying guests.

All of this, Ms. Bondy says, has made it possible for more of the shelter’s residents to begin to deal with their mental health and addiction issues and become what she calls “housing ready.” Since March, her shelter’s roster has doubled from around 50 to just shy of 100. But 18 men have moved from the shelter into permanent or supportive housing since then, about double the number in the same period last year, Ms. Bondy said. None has so far ended up back at the shelter. Another 22 residents are close to finding housing and expected to move out soon.

The number of residents referred to residential addiction treatment programs has jumped, Ms. Bondy says, and violent incidents at the shelter have plummeted. Although one man overdosed last month and later died in hospital, overdose incidents over all are also down. Drug use is officially not allowed. But the nearest legal supervised injection site is a bus ride away downtown, and Ms. Bondy says she knows drug use happens in the hotel. The shelter takes a harm-reduction approach, as staff advise residents to use with a friend and can administer the anti-overdose drug naloxone.

“I think part of it is, they are supported,” Ms. Bondy says of the residents. “They don’t have to hustle. They haven’t spent all day trying to find their next meal. … And all of those services, all of those supports, are coming to them.”

Gayle Parker, a nurse practitioner who treats patients in the basement clinic, said she was worried at first that the hotel setting, and its various rules, wouldn’t work out for residents that have spent years on the street. But she has been proved wrong: “The first couple of days, they come, and they’re like, very sheepishly, ‘All I am doing is sleeping and bathing.’ And I am like, you go for it. You haven’t been able to do that in years.”

Back in his hotel room, Mr. O’Connell tells a bit more of his life story. More than 20 years ago, he was attacked in a home invasion in London, Ont., and nearly beaten to death with a welding hammer. The assault left him with chronic migraines and cognitive and memory problems – and an intense regimen of painkillers, including 23 regular injections in his head and neck.

When the doctor treating him died, he says he had trouble persuading others to keep prescribing his medications, forcing him to seek his drugs – including the dangerously powerful fentanyl – on the street. This past winter, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, evicted from his apartment and ended up at the House of Friendship.

He says the new hotel, with a nurse practitioner onsite to help him manage his pain as he seeks a new medical specialist, has made a major difference: “It’s night and day.”

In Toronto, the city’s use of hotels has been both praised and criticized. Nurse and long-time homelessness activist Cathy Crowe says Toronto’s move to lease disused hotels has saved lives in the pandemic, which has seen more than 630 homeless people in the city infected – out of about 7,000 shelter users – but only five COVID-19 deaths. (As of Friday, the city said it had no more active outbreaks in its shelters.) In April, Ms. Crowe and other homelessness activists launched a Charter case against Toronto to speed up what they said was its sluggish response to the virus.

But Toronto has also been offering hotel rooms to homeless people before clearing the many encampments that have popped up across its downtown, where some have sought to escape the risk of COVID-19 in shelters. And in some cases, people have been transported to hotel rooms far outside the city centre, a long way from services they need. Ms. Crowe said some homeless people have complained their hotels had removed televisions from their rooms: “Then, it’s like jail.”

Whatever their merits, the House of Friendship’s changes, like those made in Toronto, remain a temporary response to COVID-19. Ms. Bondy says it costs about twice as much to run her shelter in a hotel, and her added funding from the Region of Waterloo runs out at the end of August. Federal and provincial governments have pledged more money for municipalities to deal with the pandemic, including the costs of homelessness, but it remains unclear how much money shelters will see.

Without more funding, Ms. Bondy would have to return to her old shelter, with a reduced capacity of 28 men in order to maintain physical distancing. The rest of her residents would be thrown back onto the street, unless housing could be found quickly. Toronto faces the same dilemma and is poised to release a $1-billion plan to actually purchase hotels.

“COVID hit, we panicked. We made something great happen,” Ms. Bondy said, adding that combining hotel rooms and a health clinic could be a model for homeless shelters in other cities. “People have experienced a dignified shelter environment. People’s lives have changed as a result of what we’ve been able to do here. … There’s just no way that we can go back.”

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