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Researcher says shelters woefully unprepared for COVID-19 pandemic

Last Updated Apr 28, 2020 at 7:17 pm MDT

CALGARY (660 NEWS) – After studying past pandemic responses, a researcher said the current conditions suggest nobody learned anything when it comes to helping the homeless.

It’s been 20 years since the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks, but Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, a researcher at the University of Calgary, said it has done little to help prepare those protecting the homeless population.

“How many homeless people are we just going to say, well if they die that’s one less problem?”

“We found that there were a great many, alarming deficiencies in terms of preparation or a lack of preparation. There wasn’t good, substantial coordination that would allow for a singular response to the multiple implications of a pandemic in the homeless sector and unfortunately nobody learned a lesson from that.”

RELATED: COVID-19 creates growing concerns about Alberta’s homeless

She said clients don’t trust shelter staff.

“They were more likely to trust their health care providers when they could access them,” said Schiff.

“The majority would prefer to not sleep in shelters if there was any alternative because they saw shelters as a source for contamination – rightfully so. We all know shelters are a source of contamination, why should homeless people be any less aware of that than others?”

The shelters themselves weren’t, and in many ways aren’t, prepared to deal with even basic hygiene. Staff are also not prepared, with almost half of front line workers having less than two years experience on the job and little to no training.

“45 per cent of them do not have more than 2 years of post-secondary, but that diploma usually was not in human services. It came from all over the place”

The staff themselves can also bear the brunt of being unprepared.

“I already know from the work I’ve done, between 36 and 41 per cent of staff working in homeless service have symptoms of traumatic stress such that they might qualify for a PTSD diagnosis”

But Schiff said it’s not a lost cause and that taking the first step of maintaining proper social distancing in shelters can help limit the spread of the virus.

Unfortunately, there is not always enough space to maintain a safe distance, so Schiff suggested opening up more unused hotel space rather than using convention centres.

However, she said some programs simply won’t work for a mobile population.

“So we ask people to shelter in place, but these people have no place to shelter. They have no place to store food. They’re forced, in order to meet their basic needs, (…) out into the community and forced to be around other people, whether they like it or not.”