When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it robbed people in Edmonton experiencing homelessness of an essential resource — shelters.
“If you have symptoms, the shelter won’t admit you because of COVID-19 spread concern. That’s a serious challenge,” said Dr. Francesco Mosaico, medical director of Edmonton Isolation Facility and Boyle McCauley Health Centre. “If you don’t have a home to isolate in, what do you do?”
“People don’t live in shelters, they sleep in them. It’s a common misconception,” explained Mosaico.
In the early days of the pandemic, Mosaico said it was first thought that people could isolate in shelters or in other spaces, like a church basement.
“That obviously wasn’t really founded in a good understanding that people who are experiencing homelessness don’t live in shelters. They usually get admitted at 8 p.m. and they are asked to leave by 6 a.m.”
The medical director said it was essential to create an isolation space that could also assist with obstacles like food security, getting medication or substance use disorder support.
“Many of the clients we have already carry a heavy burden of developmental trauma compounded by other complex issues,” he said.
“If you introduce a pandemic, which forces people to isolate, and it creates another almost insurmountable barrier for people accessing the care they need.”
On Mar. 20, 2020, it was announced that several halls of the Edmonton Expo Centre would serve as the Edmonton Isolation Facility, run by the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, and by Mar. 23 it was operational.
“It became quite a complex thing to organize and operationalize,” Mosaico said. “There’s no guidebook for something of this magnitude.”
As of Aug. 17, the Edmonton Isolation Facility now operates out of the wing of a south Edmonton hotel. The name of the hotel was withheld for privacy reasons related to COVID-19.
Mosaico said the impact of the facility, which is not designated as a shelter or a health care facility, was significant.
In the near year that it has been operational, Edmonton Isolation Facility has provided 12,000 bed days of service.
“An individual might be admitted and that’s just one admission, but if they end up staying for 30 days then you measure the bed days offered,” Mosaico explained. “We had about 2,000 distinct admissions. Some people came back more than once.”
Tricia Smith, executive director of Boyle McCauley Health Centre, said clients who utilize the service are grateful.
“The opportunity to be in a safe place and be cared for in a way that meets their needs, but doesn’t impress on them what the system thinks they need,” she explained.
Smith stepped into the role in December 2020, after former executive director Cecilia Blasetti delayed her retirement plans to lead the organization through developing isolation services.
“There were logistical challenges to figure out, especially now that we are in a hotel,” Smith said. “But it’s also different to have to provide ongoing health services.”
Many staff members at Boyle McCauley Health Centre were reassigned to the isolation facility while it continued to offer services to the inner-city population. It’s the first time the centre has offered 24/7 care.
“I think there is a real sense of accomplishment and pride,” Mosaico said. “To support and stay with our clients through the difficulties they’ve faced during the pandemic.”
The Edmonton Isolation Facility plans on continuing to provide service on an ongoing basis into Fall 2021.
“We’ve been able to provide a space where people feel safe and they have their needs met,” Mosaico said. “It has been our privilege.”
Global Edmonton’s “Health-Care Heroes” series highlights people in Edmonton doing amazing things during the COVID-19 pandemic.