Coronavirus: FirstOntario Centre transformed into overflow shelter for homeless men in Hamilton

FirstOntario Centre has been transformed into a 50-bed surge shelter for Hamilton's homeless men, with capacity for an additional 25 beds if necessary. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

A temporary overflow shelter for Hamilton’s homeless men is now up and running inside FirstOntario Centre as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues.

The 50-bed surge shelter inside the city’s downtown entertainment venue is run by Good Shepherd Centre and will house any homeless men who are admitted to the shelter system if the three existing men’s shelters — run by Good Shepherd, Mission Services and Salvation Army — are at capacity.

Those shelter capacities have been reduced during the pandemic to ensure physical distancing is possible within the facilities.

As of Wednesday, 35 men have been admitted to the surge shelter.

Carmen Salciccioli, director of Good Shepherd Centre, said there’s also space for an additional 25 beds, and the organization is working on increasing that capacity if necessary.

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“Since the other three shelters are open, they are doing intake as per regular, and when they reach their revised shelter capacity as per public health, then they can funnel through that individual that is booking in or another individual to this place,” said Salciccioli. “When a person comes in, we greet them at the door, we bring them downstairs, give them a bit of a tour and voila.”

The overflow shelter at the downtown arena has been open since Easter weekend. It’s an operation that also involves employees from Core Entertainment’s Spectra, who help with security and logistics inside FirstOntario Centre.

The beds themselves are set up in the concourse area, with curtains separating sections, and men who have been admitted to the shelter have access to washrooms and showers in the dressing rooms.

Medication rooms have been set up, as well as medical treatment rooms inside the media lounges. A nurse practitioner visits the facility four times a week, and physicians from the Shelter Health Network are also on hand.

Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

The floor of the arena itself, bright and open beneath the overhead lights, is home to a dining area that is set up to allow for physical distancing. Food is provided by Carmen’s Banquet Centre and is served three times a day.

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The other half of the arena is open. On the scoreboard overhead, movies will play so those who are in the shelter during the day have access to some entertainment.

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Salciccioli said the initial planning considered having the sleeping area on the arena floor, but he said it didn’t seem private enough, likening the space to a cavern.

It’s too soon for Good Shepherd to get any official feedback from residents staying in the overflow shelter, but Salciccioli said he’s eager to hear from them.

“I’m dying to see the kind of feedback we get. I do walk through when there’s people, and I ask them how things are, and so far, they seem to be pretty positive under the circumstances,” Salciccioli said.

Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

On Wednesday, there were only a few men hanging around the space, despite 35 having access to the shelter. Salciccioli admitted it’s not possible to keep people from wandering, despite their pleas to those residents.

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“We, along with the other two shelters, having been telling individuals to please stay put, not to go outside because of the difficulties … but it seems that we have a lot of people that are not here today, and we can’t really tie them down,” said Salciccioli.

“They’ll all be back for supper.”

Once a resident has been admitted, they’re given a wristband — with the colour changing every two days — to ensure those that are staying in the shelter have been through the proper intake process.

Salciccioli said they’re trying to prepare for any situation, including the possibility of someone at the shelter getting sick.

There are two isolation rooms for residents who are awaiting COVID-19 test results, and if someone tests positive for the disease caused by the virus, they would be sent to one of the city’s isolation sites, which include Bennetto Community Centre.

So far, only one person in Hamilton’s shelter system has tested positive for the virus.

Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML. Lisa Polewski / 900 CHML

The other challenge, Salciccioli said, is ensuring they have enough staff if they get ill.

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“We’ve done some additional recruiting and we think we’re going to be in good shape because that would be something that would have an impact. But I think we’re OK. We monitor it almost on a daily basis, and we’ll see where that takes us,” Salciccioli said.

The city has also opened up hotel rooms for homeless residents who need to self-isolate or stay safe during the pandemic.

There are also portable washrooms and sinks set up outside FirstOntario Centre at the corner of Bay Street and York Boulevard.

As Hamilton seeks to ramp up testing — with the possibility of a third assessment site opening in the city — Salciccioli said they’re in it for the long haul.

“As long as we need to be here, we’ll be here.”

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