COVID-19: Concern, uncertainty face Winnipeg homeless shelters as provincial cases rise – Winnipeg

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Concerns are mounting for Winnipeg’s homeless shelters as rising COVID-19 cases across the province coincide with the sector’s typically busier season.

“The pressure on the overall system does indicate that if there was a rapid increase in numbers of people trying to access the space, or say if there was a really significant large-scale outbreak at one or more locations, that this could create a perfect storm scenario,” says Kris Clemens, manager of communications and community relations with End Homelessness Winnipeg.

That pressure, she says, is due partly because so many staff are working from home right now, and partly because many shelters are already near capacity.

“We actually have more overnight spaces during the pandemic than we had previously. However, they’re still filling up,” Clemens says.

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Shelter operators have been meeting with health officials since the beginning of the pandemic to develop strategies to respond to the pandemic.

The most recent of those meetings, held Thursday, was focused on discussing the potential impacts of the Omicron variant, Clemens says.

“There are indications that there may still be many cases of COVID coming into our community over the holidays and into the coming year, and once again, the sector is going to have to pivot and adapt and come up with new strategies,” Clemens says.

The timing is particularly disheartening, since many in the sector believed they had “turned a corner,” in fall, following a successful vaccine outreach campaign.

Meanwhile, over at Siloam Mission, communications manager Luke Thiessen says the shelter had already been ramping up COVID mitigation measures following a recent small-scale outbreak.

“We were already kicking a lot of things into high gear with switching to medical masks, adding face protection, eye protection for those working in frontline areas, as well as bringing in rapid testing,” Thiessen says.

Additionally, Thiessen says the shelter has been staggering meals and erected barriers in the overnight shelter areas to assist with social distancing.

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“Capacity is certainly an issue and something that we look at differently from program to program, depending on the space,” Thiessen says.

Sector-wide, Clemens says shelters are working together to make sure everyone is safe and has a roof over their head, but officials are developing contingency plans should capacity be reached, or if transfers among shelters are no longer possible due to COVID outbreaks.

A saving grace for everyone involved, Clemens says, has been the alternative isolation accommodations (AIA) set up across the city.

These sites are for people with low or no access to safe housing and need to self-isolate because of COVID symptoms.

In a statement to Global News, a provincial spokesperson says the AIA capacity was at 50 per cent as of Dec. 22.

“This varies over time, and has ranged from 30 to 80% capacity, and the province does have the ability to increase capacity if needed,” the spokesperson said via email.

Clemens says all this points to the need for more safe, permanent housing options in the city.

“Hopefully this fifth wave can also motivate decision makers and leaders to take action on the urgently-needed housing supply to address gaps in our local housing continuum,” Clemens says.

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