COVID-19 outbreaks at Ottawa homeless shelters leaving thousands without a place to stay

By Deborah Reiter

Somerset Ward City Councillor Catherine McKenney says implementing additional emergency shelter operations in the City of Ottawa, on top of an ongoing homelessness crisis, is “a bit of a Rubik's Cube right now.”

“I think the city is responding to escalating numbers for those in need… and it just got away from us by the end of last week,” explains McKenney.    

Since January 11, Ottawa Public Health has reported 95 positive cases of COVID-19 in five ongoing shelter outbreaks, along with 11 cases of the virus affecting staff members.

The councillor says the outbreaks at local emergency shelters have lead to a pause in new admissions, meaning more than 2,000 people are being left without a warm, dry place to sleep. 

Through a blast of tweets over the weekend, McKenney says she's trying to get as many people out of the cold as possible.   

There are currently overflow centres set up at the Tom Brown Arena, the Dempsey Community Centre and the Nicholas Street Hostel, providing safe places for the Ottawa homeless community to get indoors, while maintaining social distancing. 

“It's not ideal right now. It's in an arena. But it's warm, there's food… there's shelter.” 

McKenney says the majority of people living in local shelters have full-time jobs, but without benefits or decent pay, they can't afford the cost of living in the city.

“It's progressively worse for people who were already living on the margins before COVID happened, who were working in very low income jobs, or lost their jobs,” McKenney adds. 

Friday, January 29 marked one year since the city declared a homelessness emergency in Ottawa. Along with a pandemic that threatens to bring Ottawa's health care system to it's knees.

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