Federal Government Was Warned of Crisis in Shelter System

Car caravan in Toronto, May 6, 2020.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) sent a letter to the Prime Minister, the Premiers of the provinces and territories, and the leaders of the other federal parties, detailing the crisis brewing in shelters across Canada in the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a press release dated May 8, the union says that the letter urges the federal government to take swift action and that the many issues facing shelters and the vulnerable people they serve are a ticking time bomb.

In the letter, NUPGE President Larry Brown outlines the two key issues at play: first, people experiencing homelessness aren't receiving any COVID-19 benefits or protections from the virus, and second, Community Service Workers (CSWs) aren't receiving adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or funding that enables them to do their jobs safely.

"We've heard frightening stories from our members. The shelter system was full before the pandemic. Many facilities have shared common areas and use bunk beds. There's no room for physical distancing or self-isolation," says Brown. "On top of that, there are knowledge gaps, so residents don't or can't understand why they're being told to wash their hands a lot and/or to wear a mask. It's dangerous and mentally draining for residents and community service workers."

The NUPGE press release makes the point that people experiencing homelessness are part of Canadian society and, as all Canadians, must be protected. It states:

"People experiencing homelessness don't live separately from the rest of society. They visit food banks. They go to grocery stores. They interact with people on the street. The same risks exist for the CSWs that work with these individuals. A single asymptomatic CSW could potentially spread COVID-19 to hundreds in their community.

"An outbreak in any sector of our society is still an outbreak. People experiencing homelessness should not be of less importance than any other person living in Canada. The CSWs who work with vulnerable populations deserve the same protection as other public-facing workers."

In the last section of the letter, Brown outlines short-term and long-term needs to deal with the problem and avoid an all-out crisis breaking out in the shelter system. He writes:

"The immediate, short-term asks are simple: we ask that the federal government work with the provinces and CSWs to create action plans for people experiencing homelessness.Testing, tracking, and protecting are top priorities. CSWs need adequate PPE to safely interact with their clients. Staff also need proper training on PPE procedures, and employers need to collaborate with workers and unions to develop risk assessments. Everyone in the shelter system needs to be tested in order to properly isolate those who test positive. All new clients must be tested before entering, and they must be able to receive their test results in a timely manner. There needs to be widespread movement to get all people experiencing homelessness off the streets, tested, and into accommodations. Employers must keep an open line of communication with staff and be transparent about protocols, such as those around shelter cleaning. Access to mental health support for people experiencing homelessness must be improved and maintained. We recognize that the federal government has reconfirmed its immediate investment of $207.5 million to support organizations that service vulnerable populations. However that amount is insufficient to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness in a pre-pandemic world, let alone during the pandemic.

"The long-term asks are more difficult to fulfill. But these must be discussed now as we start thinking about our new normal. There's likely to be an increase in youth experiencing homelessness as a result of closing drop-in centres and after-school programs due to COVID-19. It's unclear how the labour market will function as businesses begin to reopen. While the federal government has done a commendable job providing funding to individuals and businesses, it's undeniable that some businesses will never reopen, and some jobs will be permanently lost. It's estimated that Canada has around 50,000 "hidden homeless." These hidden homeless are likely to become visible as friends and family who are providing temporary refuge become financially insecure and vulnerable themselves. This means there's a high risk that shelters will see a surge of new clients -- something they'll be unable to handle if COVID-19 is still running rampant in our shelters. Shelters have been traditionally under-resourced and lacked capacity to deal with demand before the pandemic started. More funding must be allocated for the immediate crisis, but we cannot allow the return to a pre-pandemic status quo once it's over.

"There must be a 2-pronged strategy -- developed in partnership with workers, unions, and other stakeholders: 1. to properly fund organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness; 2. to provide stronger supports for low-income families and individuals to prevent them from experiencing homelessness in the first place."

Brown ends his letter by warning the Trudeau government that "If stronger measures aren't taken now, we're likely to see a crisis in our shelter system like the one we saw in long-term care. Society is only as strong as its most vulnerable member. And our society has left people experiencing homelessness in a very vulnerable position."

(Photos: OCAP, B.S. Waters, R. Danielson, A. Sampson)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 17 - May 16, 2020

Article Link:
Federal Government Was Warned of Crisis in Shelter System


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