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Amy, who is homeless and lost her place in a shelter two days ago, is pictured in a doorway in Toronto on Jan. 10, 2022, as the city issued a cold weather alert.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The latest COVID-19 surge is coming at the worst time for homeless shelters, with colder weather driving up demand even as the Omicron variant cuts a swath through the staff required to help people.

While facilities in many cities have been able to keep full shelter capacity by pausing some services and redeploying municipal employees, persistent absences and high workloads have often pushed the remaining staff to their limit.

“We’ve definitely had weeks and days and nights where we’re like, ‘Oh boy, this is stretched thin.’ But over all we’ve managed to make it happen,” said Tanya Fader, the director for housing at PHS Community Services Society, which runs two shelters in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The agency has used managers to fill gaps, shuffled staff between facilities and aggressively recruited temporary workers who can learn the ropes and step into the shoes of employees who go off sick.

“Our senior managers and project operation managers are training people pretty much every week and we’re getting them shift-ready very quickly,” Ms. Fader said.

Winter, COVID-19 leave Toronto’s homeless with tough choices

Toronto faces obstacles in vaccinating homeless populations while COVID-19 outbreaks erupt in shelters

Temperatures dropping to zero degrees or below is exacerbating the COVID-19 danger to homeless populations across the country. But how best to help people without homes has been a difficult and controversial question throughout the pandemic. In earlier waves many shelter residents said they felt unsafe in the facilities and some of these people set up tents in city parks, often sparking police action to clear them out.

A number of cities moved to house some shelter residents in rented hotel rooms, as a way of creating safe indoor space with proper physical distancing.

But that still left thousands of people in the regular shelter system in a place such as Toronto, where the city announced Thursday that N95 masks would be made available to residents. Meanwhile, a shortage of capacity at Toronto’s recovery sites for homeless people with COVID-19 has left many staying at their current accommodation.

“Unless you can get shelter hotel rooms … the virus is just going to rip through the system, and it’s pure neglect,” Cathy Crowe said. An activist and street nurse who has long worked with the homeless population, she argues the shelter system is in a state of collapse.

“This is a population that has other co-morbidities, health conditions, and in some shelters people are sleeping on a cot.”

Toronto has also endured its most frigid days so far this winter earlier in the week. On a very cold Monday morning, one downtown park was home to several tents and a man was standing on the frozen grass, shaking out his sleeping bag. Weather moderated mid-week, but the temperature is forecast to plunge again into the weekend, putting those who don’t feel safe in shelters at greater risk.

Gord Tanner, who heads the city’s shelter division, called characterizations of system collapse unfortunate and a disservice to hard-working staff, although he acknowledged the juggling act required to keep operating at full capacity.

According to the latest available figures, about 22 per cent of shelter staff were off because of COVID-19, although redeployments had brought the effective absence rate down to 12 per cent. Mr. Tanner said they’re able to maintain full capacity with reduced staff by cutting some non-essential services. He says the system could continue to run properly even if Toronto’s predictions of 50-per-cent to 60-per-cent staff absence across the board come true, but only by pulling resources from city divisions such as museums that are shut under COVID-19 orders.

“Certainly, I don’t believe we could achieve ongoing operations with 50 per cent or 60 per cent of our own staff off work and not refilling their positions, but [refilling them is] exactly what we’ve been doing,” he said.

“Of course, this changes on a day-to-day basis. As some of the staff that may have been impacted by COVD-19 sort of last week are now finishing their isolation periods and are better and are coming back to work. So it’s really this ongoing rolling, you know, approach we’re taking.”

In some cities, this has not gone as well. A spokesman for BC Housing, the government ministry that funds shelters in the province, said the pandemic had strained parts of the system.

“On a small number of occasions in smaller communities outside of Vancouver, shelter operations have been impacted temporarily when a large percentage of staff were sick at the same time and there weren’t enough healthy trained staff to adequately operate a shelter,” Henry Glazebrook said in an e-mail. “We haven’t seen this in Vancouver to date as there is generally a larger pool of staff to draw from.”

Shelters in Alberta have fared better. According to an e-mail from Alberta government spokesman Justin Marshall, shelters in Calgary “have not reported any instances” of reduced capacity. “There have not been any reports of anyone being turned away at any shelters in Alberta,” he added.

In every municipality, the risk of staff falling victim to COVID-19 can be mitigated by vaccinating those living or working within shelters.

Cities such as Vancouver acted aggressively to identify and vaccinate homeless people. Nearly two years into the pandemic, a spokesperson said that no COVID outbreaks had been declared in any shelter settings within the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

In Toronto, where there are currently dozens of declared outbreaks in shelters, the city is working to ramp up vaccination efforts aimed at homeless people. In a briefing last week, the city said there had been 1,318 clinics at shelter sites since April, with another 134 planned for this month.

But even in jurisdictions that prioritized shelter staff and clients for vaccinations, the current Omicron wave is taking a toll on workers.

“They’re stretched thin mentally. There’s lots of overtime, there’s lots of trying to figure things out. It’s just very draining, so I would like to be up to full staffing and have a bit of a buffer,” said Don McTavish, director of housing and shelters at the Victoria Cool Aid Society, which is launching a recruitment drive to bolster staff numbers.

“There’s still a lot of people out there on the street, so I don’t see it kinda ending any time soon,” he said. “I think we need to have the ability to respond even more in the future, so we’re going to try and build some bench strength.”

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