The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all Canadians; however, homeless individuals face risks beyond simply becoming sick. Making matters more challenging, those who assist the homeless in Halifax say they are seeing more people on the streets in summer 2020 than ever before – while the demand for shelter is at an all-time high.
Navigator Street Outreach program coordinator, Eric Jonsson works with Halifax's homeless population and says he has his work cut out for him.
"I've seen way more people sleeping outside than ever before," says Jonsson. "You don't have to work hard to find people to work with; you just have to walk around, and you'll find people that are homeless."
Jonsson says he's heard from people who have become homeless, in part, due to the effects of the pandemic. Meanwhile, another major issue is the lack of available shelter.
"A lot of those people would jump at a shelter bed if there was one available," says Jonsson, who notes many homeless individuals tell him that they don't enjoy sleeping outside, but that occupancy is limited at shelters and most often reaches capacity.
Shelter Nova Scotia says the demand for shelters is high at a time when the supply is at an all-time low, due to physical distancing restrictions.
"When COVID-19 became a crisis, we had 55 beds at Metro Turning Point – we were immediately reduced to 30 beds," says Shelter Nova Scotia executive director, Linda Wilson. "Public Health has said no more bunk beds, which has immediately reduced the numbers of spaces, in at least the Shelter Nova Scotia shelters."
Early on in the pandemic, Shelter Nova Scotia and other groups moved some individuals into hotel rooms – which Wilson says made a huge difference.
"You could see people's physical and mental health instantly improving just because they had their own bed, their own washroom, and access to three meals a day," says Wilson. "It was significant."
However, funding for supports is running out.
"We have to fundraise $300,000 a year," says Wilson. "Those plans and events had to be either postponed or cancelled, and we still have to pay our bills and provide meals and things like that."
Additionally, shared shelters, lack of access to health care and underlying health issues intensify the risk for those without a home to call their own.
"A lot of people are immunocompromised. Living on the streets takes a toll on your health," says Jonsson. "People are conscious of the fact that they are going to be at a greater risk of getting the virus if it does break out in a shelter."
Meanwhile, both Jonsson and Wilson say the biggest issue when it comes to homelessness is a lack of affordable housing in Halifax – something they hope the government addresses soon.