Expanded shelter to provide COVID-19 support, education

Brian Howell, manager at River Bank Development Corporation. -- Herald file photo

The two organizations leading work to set up a bigger, expanded emergency shelter this year say the project will help to improve COVID-19 prevention education and contact tracing among the city’s vulnerable population.

The new 20-bed emergency shelter was approved for the heated space under the exhibition’s grandstand during a unanimous city council vote Tuesday.

The project is being led by the YWCA and River Bank Development Corporation and has the support of the exhibition association and the city’s vulnerable persons working group.

“We’ve recently felt the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis among Prince Albert’s vulnerable populations as a result of the church services that were held some time ago, said River Bank Development Corporation manager Brian Howell.

“Having people in a setting like a shelter will give us the opportunity to educate them about COVID-19 and also find out what going on on the streets so we can head off some of these things before they happen.”

Early last week the SHA identified a COVID-19 outbreak stemming from a series of revival events held at the Prince Albert Gospel Outreach Centre on Central Ave. Photos from the event show several people packed closely together in a small room with few, if any, wearing masks.

Organizers said they weren’t aware of the provincial guidelines regarding religious services, adding that hand sanitizer and masks were available for anyone who wanted them. They also said that people sang without wearing masks, in contravention of provincial guidelines.

This week, the outreach centre’s pastor confirmed to the Daily Herald that they had received a $14,000 fine. The church’s community is rallying to help pay off the charge.

A significant number of attendees of those events, though, are the same population housed in the city’s shelters and accessing the city’s affordable housing programs.

“As a service provider to the homeless population and the vulnerable population, (we’re) concerned about the actions that were taken by P.A. Gospel Outreach,” YWCA executive director Donna Brooks said.

“Even though they felt they did nothing wrong, they have to stop and think of the impact that it has on our vulnerable population who sleep in our shelters, enter shelters  or enter programs and the cross-contamination there.”

Brooks said that, so far, no clients or staff have tested positive, but they’ve had to lock down a lot of these services since the outbreak was declared.

“This (shelter) will give us an opportunity to educate people not to go to those types of gatherings.”

Howell said the outbreak has affected his organization as well, and the services accessed by people who have a place to live but are in supported affordable housing.

“It was an outrageous series of actions. I’m most upset by it. Anybody that claims to have the interests of their constituency at heart and yet brings them into a situation like that is either blind or truly dangerous.”

Howell added that it’s his hope that the shelter will contribute to education both ways — both informing vulnerable people what’s going on and in learning what’s happening on the streets.

“If people would have been aware of the dangers of that, they might have made different choices,” he said.

“If we would have heard that it was going on before it happened, we would have made sure that someone was there to stop it. This went on for a number of nights. It was quite surprising that no one caught it. That just throws the whole community into chaos. Now that it’s into this community, who knows where it’s going to end up.”

Howell said that contact tracing has been made more difficult because the people who attended those services ended up “all over the place.

“If it was winter, he said, “there’s a good chance at least a few of them would be at the shelter. Hopefully, the contact tracers and health region will catch them all, but they’re very busy these days.”

If the shelter were in place, Howell argued, contact tracing would have been done sooner and would have been more effective. Additionally, he said, the province has a program where transient individuals who don’t have somewhere safe to self-isolate but who have tested positive or come into contact with a positive case are housed until they test negative or recover.

The shelter will also provide a means of connecting more people with that program, Howell said.

“There’s quite a good safety net. This shelter will add to it over the winter,” he said.

COVID-19 is also making it more dangerous for street-involved people who have nowhere to go, Howell said.

Places they used to go to warm up, such as ATM vestibules or restaurants, aren’t open. Additionally, apartments they would go to are barring entrance due to COVID-19 fears, and couch surfing contacts are similarly hesitant to welcome them in.

That also means more people might be in need of shelter when the mercury plunges sub-zero.

Agencies have already formed a food program to help fill in sources of food that dried up due to COVID-19. The hope is the shelter also helps those in need, and no one is left to freeze in the winter air.

“It’s really a lot tougher for homeless people this year than it was last year,” Howell said.

“We believe this will have benefits for all of us if we can keep COVID out of that community. It’s part of an overall strategy to support everyone within our community and avoid some of the unfortunate issues associated with the time we’re living in.”