Emergency shelter services expanded in Hamilton while COVID-19 still a threat

The Cathedral Boys' School will continue to operate as a temporary men's shelter as Hamilton slowly transitions away from its emergency response to homelessness during the pandemic. Google Street View

Hamilton city council is being asked to approve the extension of some temporary shelter services while there’s still a need for extra capacity.

That includes potentially keeping the men’s shelter at the Cathedral Boys’ School open until Dec. 31, instead of closing it on July 1 as originally planned.

During Thursday’s emergency and community services committee meeting, Edward John, the city’s director of housing services said the extra space is still needed in the shelter system because people have been staying in the shelters longer during the pandemic.

“In 2020, Hamilton’s emergency shelters saw an 18 per cent increase in length of stay,” John said.

“This was coupled with only a seven per cent decrease in unique individuals served in 2020, … reinforcing that it’s not the numbers in the system, but the length of stay that they are maintaining in those beds.”

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Some 319 households — or 741 individuals — were housed by the city between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, according to John.

But due to a lack of available units and housing staff being redeployed to other areas, John said that led to “ballooning” of the number of people staying in shelters.

“As we now transition from an emergency response to more sustainable actions, a focused return to diversion and outflow is required.

That transition will take time, according to city staff, and means that the temporary shelter space needs to be kept available until at least Dec. 31.

John said the temporary shelter at the former school on Main Street East could be decommissioned earlier than that, depending on a number of circumstances — including public health allowing increased capacity at existing shelters and more vaccination among the city’s homeless population.

“Once we have a reduction through vaccinations, we’re hopeful then that those outbreaks and those situations where we’re not able to fully maximize capacities are now available.”

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To date, about 450 homeless residents in Hamilton have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and second dose clinics are expected to begin this month.

Ward 5 Coun. Chad Collins said he’s concerned about vaccine hesitancy among the homeless population, saying he’s heard anecdotally that some people aren’t willing to get a shot.

“If we continue to see outbreaks because we’re not getting through the population with the vaccine, we’re going to continue to be in a situation where we have to rely on the temporary facilities … as well as the hotels.”

John acknowledged that it’s a “challenging” population to vaccinate but said public health has had “increasingly better luck” with the clinics as time goes on.

“Not only is it a challenging population with regards to how we provide information, but it was also one of the first populations … to receive it. We’ve actually worked quite well with our community partners, our agencies and shelter providers, to increase that uptake and reduce that pressure of vaccine hesitancy.”

The extension of emergency shelter services also includes maintaining space in hotel rooms for additional capacity and continuing to operate COVID-19 isolation services for those in the shelter system, although that will no longer happen at the Bennetto Recreation Centre, as it’s expected to re-open as a rec centre for public use.

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To extend these services until the end of 2021, it will cost an additional $1.5 million for the temporary shelter at Cathedral Boys’ School, $7.1 million for hotel rooms, $2 million for additional food, security and enhanced cleaning, $1.1 million for isolation services, and $1.5 million for drop-in services.

Those costs could be covered by dipping into pandemic reserves, as well as extra funding from the federal or provincial governments.

The staff recommendation to extend the emergency shelter services was approved at committee and will need to be ratified at city council next week.

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