For those experiencing homelessness and in need of life saving supports, the streets of Ottawa are lonelier than ever before. The Salvation Army’s Street Outreach Services, operating out of the Ottawa Booth Centre, continues to drive around the city day and night to reach out and bring comfort to those that call the streets home.
“Outreach teams and emergency shelters are an essential service during these times in order to protect a very vulnerable population from contracting COVID-19,” said Marc Provost, Executive Director at The Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre. “The homeless population can’t self-isolate in the same way that others can and so it is even more important right now that we reach out to ensure that they are getting the medical attention and supports they need to stay healthy.”
Kristen McDonald, The Salvation Army Street Outreach Services Coordinator says the rates of co-occurring chronic health conditions in the homeless population makes them more susceptible to fatalities from this illness and not being able to self isolate makes it more difficult to avoid getting sick.
Catherine McKenney, Ottawa City Councillor for Somerset Ward and the City of Ottawa’s Liaison for Housing and Homelessness understands the need and importance of these services.
“The Street Outreach Team is more important than ever today to ensure the basic needs of people who are experiencing homelessness,” said Councillor McKenney. “Of course, the ultimate goal is to find housing so that everyone, regardless of their situation, can be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to ensure that a lasting legacy of the Hotels to Homes campaign is an end to chronic homelessness.”
To keep both clients and staff safe, Street Outreach service delivery has been modified to prevent transmission of COVID-19. The teams are observing more physical distancing with clients and if someone needs help getting in and out of the vehicle, additional personal protective equipment is used to protect staff and clients.
“There is a lot more concern around cross contamination than ever before,” said Kristen. “We have to be more conscious of what we touch with our gloves and we can’t even share pens at this point.”
A second Street Outreach Services van is now being used 8 hours a day to assist, and a third rented 6 passenger van with car seats and booster seats is on standby to assist the safe transportation of families staying in shelter.
The Street Outreach team is still responding to approximately 18 clients per day, but it is taking longer as each call requires more time to do the necessary thorough cleaning of the van between each client interaction.
“The main priority now for the Street Outreach van is medical transportation to hospitals and isolation centres,” said Kristen. “Ottawa Inner City Health has been assisting us with their mobile health clinic van supported by Telus Health, which offers portable testing for those facing barriers to test centres. Individuals are then transported by our team to an isolation centre while they wait for results.”
One of the great examples of this was how the Street Outreach Team was able to assist a client with cognitive disabilities to obtain testing and isolation safely. The current testing at Brewer Arena is difficult to access without a means of transportation, a health card, a phone or advocacy skills. The Street Outreach Team was able to develop a plan with The Royal Ottawa Hospital nurses to assist this client to get to hospital for testing and transportation to isolation. The hospital and the client were very thankful for The Salvation Army’s assistance.
Since the closure of restaurants, stores, and many day programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals experiencing homelessness have fewer places to access food, shower facilities, shelter from the cold and public bathrooms. With empty streets and the need for physical distancing, opportunities to pan handle have also diminished.
“We are currently working with our partners and the city to resolves some of those issues,” said Kristen. “In the meantime, we are doing what we can to transport individuals to shelter, hospitals and places where they can get help.”
Despite the additional challenges, Street Outreach staff members continue to be encouraged by the work they do.
“This population is already very isolated and looked over in our society. It’s important for us to show them that they are not forgotten, that we see them, and we care,” said Jason Pino, Outreach Services Supervisor. “They need to experience compassion.”
“Homelessness doesn’t stop during a pandemic. We still have positive connections with people and have a positive impact,” said Brooklyn, a Salvation Army Street Outreach worker.
The Salvation Army is very grateful to the work of our Street Outreach staff knowing that there are new challenges and emotions that arise during these difficult times. The Salvation Army is supporting our staff with both the equipment and emotional support they need.
“Staff are feeling the impact of the suffering. Those that are homeless are suffering more and our staff are a witness to that,” said Kristen. “They are being supported through The Salvation Army with biweekly debriefs with a registered social worker over video-conferencing to help them work through this.”
The Street Outreach team would like the public to know that a friendly nod or a wave of acknowledgement to front line workers when you see them in the community is very helpful for morale and lifts their spirits.
“I have long since embraced the idea of challenge in the workplace as a meaningful and worthwhile endeavor. How difficult something is, has almost no bearing on if it should be done,” said Kristen. “Supporting this population is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective but avoiding or mitigating risk of COVID-19 outbreak amongst the homeless is paramount in protecting our community.”