SIRC partners call on Sask Government to enact coordinated, inter-ministerial COVID-19 response to homelessness

Over the past year, SIRC partners have done everything in their power to limit the spread of COVID-19 amongst people who are especially vulnerable due to food- and housing-insecurity. In March, we created a Vulnerable Sector Strategy for Saskatoon with 6 critical, interdependent components.

We have implemented as much of the strategy as possible, and the Saskatchewan Health Authority has been incredibly responsive, but we have not had the necessary support from other provincial ministries to fully implement the strategy. Without their support, it gets harder each day to maintain our response. Cases are on the rise, we have had our first emergency shelter closure due to COVID-19 exposure, vulnerable people are being left out in the cold, and the risk is growing for clients and staff.

The YWCA Saskatoon operates at 100% capacity 99% of the time. With COVID-19, they have reduced their emergency shelter from 34 to 20 beds to adhere to public health guidelines. Meanwhile, demand is growing. Last October 2019, they turned away 314 people. This October, they had to turn away 477. People come to their doors day and night looking for shelter space. Some choose to wait outside, setting up a space for the night until they can check back the next day. Over the last week, since the outbreak was declared at The Lighthouse leaving them unable to take new admissions, the YWCA received 171 calls for space, compared to 105 calls the week prior. Still, the Ministry of Social Services is clinging to pre-pandemic policies – funding shelters on a per person basis and leaving them in the dangerous position of having to accept new, asymptomatic clients, even when they are awaiting test results and may be linked to positive cases. Pre-COVID-19 policies will not work in a COVID-19 world. The Ministry of Social Services must adapt.

Critical Need #1

Shelter is a basic human right. With the cold weather approaching and the pandemic looming over us, we need an emergency sheltering plan that includes adequate funding for shelters and hotel rooms for asymptomatic people who are homeless and awaiting test results to help keep COVID-19 out of shelters so that shelters can remain open.

The pandemic has highlighted the state of emergency that many people have been living in even before COVID-19. It has also amplified the deficiencies in our human service systems that already existed prior to the pandemic. Community-based organizations, who have always worked to fill these gaps, are providing care to an increasing number of clients who have recently received eviction notices and are facing homelessness this winter. They are being told by Public Health to self-isolate but do not have access to the resources and supports needed to do so. Many people rely on meals provided by the Food Bank or The Friendship Inn. They cannot afford to buy groceries online and have them delivered; they cannot afford to miss work for the 14 days or more of self-isolation that is required. All of this has had a significant negative impact on their health.

Critical Need #2

Transitional supported housing model with harm reduction supports and intensive case management is needed to ensure that systems (like health) are not creating and perpetuating homelessness and the potential spread of the virus by medically discharging people into homelessness

Funding for PPE and COVID related cleaning supplies is a constant pressure for community-based service providers. Since the pandemic started, many partners have stepped up to provide funding, supplies, and human resources for our collective effort. Community based services have stepped up. Indigenous agencies and governments have stepped up.  Municipal government has stepped up. Private sector has stepped up. The Government of Canada has stepped up. Across Canada we see provincial governments stepping up to match federal funding and support to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff, clients, and community members. In Saskatchewan, the Provincial Government provided a one-time payment of $171K to be split amongst 10 shelters in March, some 7 months ago, at a time where the numbers were low and manageable – a pittance in comparison to other provinces. In this 2nd wave, there have been no new commitments from the provincial government to support community agencies with their PPE and added COVID-19 response pressures.

Critical Need #3

Provincial funding for all PPE required for community-based organizations to continue providing their essential services to the most vulnerable community members so they can keep clients and staff safe and ensure Covid-19 doesn’t take hold in the homeless population.

When the Government of Saskatchewan meets these 3 critical needs through a coordinated, inter-ministerial COVID-19 response to homelessness, the Saskatoon Interagency Response to COVID-19 will be able to fully implement the Vulnerable Sector Strategy and help keep the situation in Saskatoon from becoming even worse.