Iqaluit’s homeless shelters need self-isolation spaces, says director

Chief public health officer says Nunavut’s working on plan for medical travellers returning to shelters

Shelters in Iqaluit, like the city’s damp shelter pictured here, are ramping up cleaning procedures and suspending visiting hours to prepare for COVID-19. But shelters in the city need spaces for clients to self-isolate, says Laurel McCorriston, executive director of the Uquutaq Society. (File photo)

By Emma Tranter

With vulnerable clients and, in some cases, already overcrowded spaces, shelters in Iqaluit are taking extra precautions to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t spread.

But while Nunavummiut are being told to self-isolate and practise social distancing, shelters like the Uquutaq men’s shelter are regularly at capacity and use leftover space to accommodate additional people, making self-isolation nearly impossible.

Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, announced on Wednesday, March 18, that anyone entering the territory should self-isolate for a period of 14 days.

But for Uquutaq, it’s not that easy.

“People cannot self-isolate in shelters. We need to have a place where people can isolate,” Laurel McCorriston, the Uquutaq society’s executive director, told Nunatsiaq News.

McCorriston said she is particularly concerned about Uquutaq’s clients out on medical travel in the south who will return to the shelter.

“They can’t self-isolate for 14 days in the shelter. So what are we to do?” she said.

During a news conference on Thursday, March 19, Patterson said the Government of Nunavut is working out the details of a standardized plan for medical travellers returning to shelters in the territory.

“Right now, we’re taking it on a case-by-case basis, depending upon where the individual is going, where they’re coming back from,” Patterson said.

For now, there is only one shelter resident who has returned to Nunavut from medical travel, Patterson said. That person is living in alternative housing, but Patterson would not provide more details for privacy reasons.

“We’re fully aware that putting somebody into the shelter is not worth the risk. And so we’re doing everything necessary to find alternate places,” he said.

McCorriston said community groups in the city had also a conference call on March 18 with the City of Iqaluit to discuss immediate needs and next steps.

In the meantime, the shelter is taking extra precautions to protect its clients. Visiting hours have been cancelled and non-residents are prohibited from entering the shelter. Bedding is washed every day, while cots are regularly sanitized. A cleaner who works at the shelter has also been asked to double their regular hours, McCorriston said.

“All the other staff, every two hours, are cleaning all the touch points. We’re also training backup cooks. Because we have a chef and a cook and if we lose those two people, then we’re in trouble. So we’re building up our relief staff,” McCorriston said.

And for an already-overcrowded shelter, social distancing isn’t possible either, McCorriston said.

“We have a site that has 42 people right now that often has 60. At the low-barrier shelter, there’s two rooms of cots and they’re not six feet apart. You couldn’t do it. It’s not possible,” McCorriston said, referring to Iqaluit’s damp shelter at building 534.

The Uquutaq men’s shelter at building 722 has 32 beds, but accommodates anywhere from 45 to 60 people right now, depending on the weather, McCorriston said. The low-barrier, or damp shelter, at building 534 serves 15 to 17 people a night at the moment, with a capacity for 17 people.

Also on March 18, the federal government announced an $82-billion COVID-19 economic relief package. In that package, $50 million is dedicated to supporting women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, while $157.5 million will go Canada’s Reaching Home initiative to support people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There is money flowing in for COVID response. We haven’t really had a chance to talk about what we need, what it would cost, how we would operationalize it. Where are we going to get space … those conversations are going to happen between us and the Department of Family Services,” McCorriston said.

Another concern as businesses and public spaces in the city continue to shut down for COVID-19 prevention is the lack of spaces for clients to go during the day, McCorriston said. The men’s shelter is closed to clients from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“There’s nowhere left to go. We’re required to close at 8:30 and reopen at 5. All these places people usually go, like the Aquatic Centre, the library … Tim Hortons, they’re all closed. So now they have nowhere to go. So that’s something we’ll have to address with the city in the next little while,” McCorriston said.

Women’s shelters also concerned about lack of isolation space

Over at the Qimaavik Shelter in Apex, which houses women and children affected by violence, and Sivummut House, a women’s shelter in Iqaluit, preparations are also underway to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Mary Collins, the supervisor at Sivummut House, said she is also concerned about the lack of isolation spaces for the shelter’s residents if an outbreak were to occur in the city.

“We’re all trying to come up with a plan to try and figure out if somebody does get to a point where they may have symptoms, what’s our plan from there, what do we do? We’re all waiting to hear back from Public Health and the city and places like that,” Collins said.

“Other than that, we’re doing what we can on this end, to put their health and safety at the forefront.”

Sivummut is also stepping up its preventive measures, including regular sanitization and hand-washing and stocking up on cold and flu medicine. The shelter has also stopped allowing visitors and is not accepting any donations.

At Sivummut, women live in the building day and night, meaning they generally come and go during the day, Collins said.

“We’ve asked them if they could refrain from being in the public as much as they could. And so if they need, say just some snacks or cigarettes or whatever, we have been getting it for them,” Collins said.

“Our ladies can be here all day long, all night long. But for the men, how are they supposed to sanitize when there’s nowhere to go for them to wash their hands? So there’s a lot of things on the go, but nothing has actually been finalized. It’s just a waiting game.”

Eight women and two children are currently staying at Sivummut, which has a capacity for 15 people. Around 18 total women and children are staying at the shelter in Apex, which has a capacity for just over 20, Collins said.

Collins said Sivummut is monitoring residents for symptoms, especially its more vulnerable residents, including elders and people with compromised immune systems.

“So far, everybody is healthy. We’re just going to continue to do that and be diligent.”

Iqaluit’s food centre experiencing staff shortage, still providing takeout meals

Along with other spaces in the city, the Qajuqturvik Food Centre in Iqaluit has also reduced its hours and no longer serves seated lunches in its dining room as of March 17. Instead, staff are preparing takeout meals that are given out at lunch time. Qajuqturvik is normally open seven days a week for lunch, but is now running on a five-day schedule, from Sunday to Thursday.

“I’ve given our staff the freedom to choose whether or not they feel safe to work in our kitchen. So we’re down to a really small crew of staff right now, so that’s why we had to reduce the numbers of days we’re able to serve,” Wade Thorhaug, Qajuqturvik’s executive director, told Nunatsiaq News.

Qajuqturvik said it has also eliminated all of its daily programming, like training programs and community cooking clubs, and is focusing on providing takeout meals. Thorhaug said there hasn’t been much of a change in the number of people coming to the centre since the dining room closed. The centre’s supply of food has also not been affected, he said.

“I think people understand why we’re doing this and they seem appreciative of the effort,” Thorhaug said.

Thorhaug said Qajuqturvik is also considering organizing a fundraising initiative to provide things like grocery store gift cards and food hampers to people in need, but nothing has been finalized yet.

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(4) Comments:

  1. Posted by Legit question on

    How are overcrowded shelters any different from overcrowded houses (with elders and children)… most cannot self isolate after medical travel or anything else.

    Why focus on just shelters?

  2. Posted by Paul Murphy on

    I highlighted this on facebook last week.

    Has anyone approached the Department of National Defence about using the FOL sites in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay about using the huge residences that are empty the majority of the year.

    What was their response and if negative was the need brought to the Prime Minister.

    Too many bureaucrats seeming to put this demand off or not fighting hard enough for the benefit of our needy,

    Those residences can be used for men’s shelters, Women’s shelters and for our many couch surfers for temporary housing

    • Posted by Paul Murphy II on

      Yes Paul, they have. Do some more research.

      • Posted by Paul Murphy on

        And what do you know? Or perhaps you can share with the public. Anytime I have asked I have been told DND is not interested.

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