Monday, March 8, 2021
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City to use aquatic centre as interim shelter amid Downtown Mission outbreak

City to use aquatic centre as interim shelter amid Downtown Mission outbreak
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The local health unit has ordered the Downtown Mission to shift its operations in light of an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak, prompting the City of Windsor and multiple community partners to step in and set up a temporary homeless shelter for those in need.

The region’s medical officer of health on Friday issued a Section 29.2 outbreak order requiring the mission to keep its Victoria Avenue location closed and halt new admissions at its interim shelter at the former Windsor Public Library building downtown.

To fill the service gap, at least four agencies are joining forces with the city to transition mission services to the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre on Pitt Street.

“The idea is having places available where these people can safely shelter without putting anyone at risk, and also get critical support at this time of the year and meet their needs,” said Dr. Wajid Ahmed on Monday. “It is a very difficult population to work with — there are lots of moving pieces.”

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The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit declared an outbreak at the mission on Feb. 11. In total, 70 guests and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

The new order’s purpose is to ensure appropriate infection prevention and control measures are in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the mission’s Victoria and Ouellette Avenue locations, he said. The mission had already voluntarily closed both sites, instead offering its services temporarily at the former library.

WINDSOR, ON. FEBRUARY 22, 2021 -   People are shown in front of the former downtown Windsor Library on Ouellette Ave. on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Windsor, ON. I was been converted to a temporary shelter after the Downtown Mission was shut down due to a Covid outbreak. (THE WINDSOR STAR - Dan Janisse)
People are shown in front of the former downtown Windsor Library on Ouellette Ave. on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Windsor, ON. I was been converted to a temporary shelter after the Downtown Mission was shut down due to a Covid outbreak. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

The order allows for operations to continue at the former library for only current guests until the aquatic centre opens. No one newly seeking shelter will be allowed to access services at the library facility. Instead, those individuals will soon be sent to the aquatic centre more than a kilometre away.

“This is being treated like an emergency no different than if there was an apartment fire,” said Jelena Payne, the city’s commissioner of community development and health services.

In partnership with the city and with support from the Canadian Red Cross, Assisted Living Southwestern Ontario, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Windsor-Essex County branch, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, and Family Services Windsor-Essex are aiding in the transition from the mission’s facilities to the aquatic centre and will support operations there. Payne estimated dozens of other organizations are mobilizing to help.

The temporary shelter at the aquatic centre is expected to be open and operational as early as Wednesday. Mission clients who have access to alternative accommodations, like the homes of friends and family, or who have a place to stay but visit the mission for food and socialization, are being asked to “hunker down” where they can until the new shelter opens.

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The city and its partners are still ironing out several details, like securing food and linen services and ordering temporary barriers to go between beds at the aquatic centre, but several steps to set up the emergency shelter are complete. They’ve stripped the building of furniture not useful in the shelter and have identified the sleeping, eating, and screening areas, as well as places for staff to put on and take off personal protective equipment.

“It’s a huge undertaking just to set up an emergency shelter, which we’ve done before,” Payne said. “But now you have to layer all of the infection prevention and control protocols on top of that.”

WINDSOR, ON. FEBRUARY 22, 2021 -   The Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre is shown on Monday, February 22, 2021. (THE WINDSOR STAR - Dan Janisse)
The Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre is shown on Monday, February 22, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

While all of the water has been drained from the Adventure Bay and aquatic centre pools, the bathrooms and showers remain operational and will be accessible by shelter visitors. That’s one of the reasons the aquatic centre was chosen, Payne said.

The facility also has separate rooms for sleeping, so fewer people will share sleeping spaces. People will be assigned a room and a bed, “and that will be theirs while the facility is open — so, highly regulated from an infection prevention and control process.”

Ahmed had no harsh words for the mission’s leadership team, instead insisting that any COVID-19 outbreak is a “very demanding, challenging, and resource-intensive process to get under control.” The physical layout of the mission’s facilities makes physical distancing difficult. On top of that, some of those experiencing homelessness have a hard time following public health guidelines, including self-isolation orders, because of addiction and mental health issues.

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“There are a number of challenges, and they need support,” Ahmed said. “We want to make sure we are supporting them rather than penalizing them, because their inability to comply with the order (is) based on a number of factors.”

People experiencing homelessness who tested positive or who were exposed to COVID-19 have been self-isolating at a city-run isolation and recovery centre. As of Monday afternoon, 50 COVID-positive individuals were in isolation at the city-run site, and 23 others were isolating at a separate location as a result of the mission’s outbreak.

WINDSOR, ON. FEBRUARY 22, 2021 -   A sign on the Downtown Mission regarding a Covid-19 outbreak is shown on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Windsor, ON. (THE WINDSOR STAR - Dan Janisse)
A sign on the Downtown Mission regarding a Covid-19 outbreak is shown on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Windsor, ON. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Those who tested negative and required the mission’s services have been accessing emergency support at the former library since Feb. 15.

“We must come together as a community to support those who need help the most during this public health crisis,” said Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens in a news release.

“In 2020, the City of Windsor provided the Downtown Mission with approximately $1 million in emergency funding to support their operations during the ongoing pandemic. And when the health unit was forced to shut (the mission’s) facility, the City of Windsor mobilized resources quickly to open this temporary emergency shelter at the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre. We all need to do our part.”

Use of the facility will continue until the health unit determines the Downtown Mission’s sites can safely reopen in compliance with public health guidelines.

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A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the Salvation Army on Feb. 14, only three days after the health unit declared an outbreak at the mission. Although some of the same people access services from both organizations, Ahmed said the Salvation Army has seen fewer cases. He attributed the Salvation Army’s more successful outbreak management in part to the layout of its building and its ability to provide an “extra layer of isolation service.”

The city has also been operating a day program for those experiencing homelessness at Windsor Water World, but that facility was not used as an overnight shelter.

tcampbell@postmedia.com

twitter.com/wstarcampbell

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