FirstOntario Centre to become temporary ‘surge’ shelter for Hamilton homeless during pandemic

Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre will be the home of a new “surge” shelter to ease the burden for the city’s overcrowded men’s shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the city’s town hall on Wednesday evening, Paul Johnson, the director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, said they’re in the process of turning the downtown arena into a 50-bed overflow shelter.

“It’s going to help our three men’s shelters to actually lower their numbers within their shelters currently,” said Johnson.

“They recognize that their setup does not allow for the kinds of physical distancing that will help stop the spread of this, and they are very susceptible to outbreaks because of the numbers of people there.”

The city has also set aside hundreds of hotel rooms for homeless residents who need to self-isolate or stay safe during the pandemic, and so far, 46 of those are occupied.

There are also three isolation sites set up for homeless residents who test positive for COVID-19 — and at this point, only one person in the shelter system has needed to use one of those.

Advocates for Hamilton’s homeless population have been urging the city to set up more hygiene and rest stations for daytime use. As of this past weekend, there are now temporary washrooms and sinks set up at the corner of Bay Street and York Boulevard outside FirstOntario Centre.

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“All of these measures are trying our very best to figure out how to ensure that we have the best chance of stopping the spread of COVID-19 among homeless populations,” said Johnson.

He added that the entire pandemic is giving him a new perspective on “congregate” living throughout Hamilton.

“We have about 400 people in shelters on any given night. We have about 750 people who call residential care facilities their home. We have nearly 4,000 long-term care beds and a few thousand more retirement home beds in our community, all in some form of a congregate setting. And we need to, I think, think about that long term.

“When some people say, why couldn’t we just put everybody in their own home? The reality is, in the shelters and the RCS, we simply don’t have that many single rooms to do that. And the staffing to support it.”

The city has also increased service at some drop-in facilities, including the Wesley Day Centre, to accommodate those who don’t have anywhere to go during the day.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at King Street East and Victoria Avenue North is also opening its doors every afternoon, seven days a week, to homeless residents who need somewhere to get food, use the washroom, or rest.

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