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COVID complicates caring

In the past year, the pandemic has forced some
major changes in how we help the homeless

The Bear Clan Patrol began their mission last November. (Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton) 

By Brendan Collinge

ASSISTING THE CITY’S HOMELESS and unhoused community has been complicated by COVID, to say the least. As the pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary in Edmonton, priorities and practices have significantly shifted from what they were this time last year.

Elliott Tanti, communications and development manager of Boyle Street Community Services (BSCS), says a big part of the pandemic response has been assuring safety for staff and clients. This hasn’t always been easy, as the guidelines from Alberta Health Services (AHS) have changed many times throughout the year.

“While they have sorted it now, what was expected with PPE has been fluctuating,” Tanti says. “And it has been a real challenge to keep on top of the expectations from public health.”

Boyle Street Community Services is one city agency that is struggling to find a way through the pandemic. (Cole Buhler)

BSCS provides different specialized programming, including a drop-in space, group- and child-living facilities, and mental-health meetings. Tanti says it has been difficult to find practices that abide by health guidelines across services and programming.

“We’ve got kids- and group-living facilities – so, kids in government-care. So the expectations around how that group isolates – and how the staff that supports them isolates – is a very difficult conversation.”

The maximum capacity of the BSCS community centre is 500-600; that has been reduced to 45 to follow distancing requirements.

Homeless and unhoused people have also been part of the rise in overdose deaths, Tanti adds. Data from the Government of Alberta show an increase in overdose deaths in 2020, topping 1,029.

“Our numbers were down at supervised consumption services, so people are using safe places less. There’s a fear of being in groups or together with someone.”

Pandemic restrictions have created difficulties, but they have also opened up opportunities, Tanti says. Provisional shelters and isolation spaces have allowed Boyle Street to more easily connect with the homeless and unhoused.

“What we’ve found is isolation times also give us an opportunity to make connections and break those cycles of poverty and homelessness.”

Fellow non-profit, The Mustard Seed, also saw its services interrupted when the pandemic hit. Much of its programming had to be wound down or adapted to abide by pandemic guidelines, executive director Dean Kurpjuweit says. That left them with a flurry of questions.

“Are donors going to be responsive to us? How can we do this without volunteers, since AHS had restrictions on volunteers? How do we make sure we can help everyone who needs help?”

The Mustard Seed’s community hub was shut down, and meal services downtown were replaced with take-out or “door-to-door” service only.

‘How can we do this
without volunteers?’

However, Mustard Seed has increased the number of its sleeping mats from 40 to 510 at its sites throughout Edmonton, thanks to funding from the city and province. It also expanded support to 24/7 locations on the south side.

While there has never been a lack of concern for the issue, Kurpjuweit says the pandemic has fuelled more concern for the homeless and unhoused than he has seen. Although he recognizes that priorities may shift after the pandemic, he says, he thinks advocates should be prepared for pandemic support to end.

The Mustard Seed has increased the number of sleeping mats for the needy at its locations across the city. (Cole Buhler)

“I think we would be wrong to assume that this level of funding will continue, because we know it’s pandemic related. On the same hand, I think it would be wrong for us not to advocate very, very hard for our most vulnerable citizens on all levels of government, and say, Look

what we can do when we’re appropriately funded.”

Some organizations have found the pandemic is a reason to create new supports.

The Bear Clan Patrol in Edmonton – modelled after similar organizations in Winnipeg and Calgary – began their patrols last November, providing street people with warm meals, water, hygiene products and warm clothes – and naloxone, just in case.

Despite the efforts of the city to provide shelters, the patrol’s founder Judith Gale says there is still not enough shelter for those who need it. Everything is closed up, except for a few places, leaving few bathroom options for people on the street.

“The No. 1 thing that we see and find is feces. Human feces all over the place. Because, here in Edmonton, we have nowhere for our unhoused population to go to the bathroom!” 

Gale says people often don’t feel safe at shelters. Spaces like the Hope Mission and the Edmonton Convention Centre have seen COVID outbreaks. On top of the pandemic risk, Gale adds that many shelters have seen drug dealing and even assaults. As a result many unhoused people shy away from shelters.

More housing is needed to get people in from the cold, she says – and that means more funding.

“No matter how much we take out, it is never enough. At the end of our patrol, we have to say no, and that’s the worst thing.

“I hate to say no to someone who’s freezing, to someone who’s starving.”

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