The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every single one of us in some way, and has fundamentally changed many aspects of our society. As governments and non-profit organizations have scrambled to find ways to support those who have fallen on difficult financial times as a result of the pandemic, there is one group that presents a unique and difficult challenge: the homeless. One solution could be hotels for the homeless.
Shelters have been forced to reduce capacity for safety measures, and have had to completely overhaul their usual programming. Dining halls that can usually fit two hundred people are now only able to have a maximum of twenty people inside at a time, and many have closed altogether.
This has made it difficult for many homeless people to access necessary resources and put increased pressure on centers that have remained open. The communal settings of most shelters put clients at a much greater risk for transmitting viruses and disease, and the mental and emotional toll this places on people who already experience a higher rate of mental illness is posing a significant problem .
The pandemic may have, however, created a new opportunity to address the issue of homelessness in a unique way. The provincial government of British Columbia, Canada, has come up with a special solution in their communities: hotels for the homeless.
Hotels for the Homeless
The B.C. government has now been able to provide housing for two hundred homeless Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Provincial legislatures purchased the Comfort Inn Hotel in the city of Victoria for 18.5 million dollars and converted the rooms into private living spaces for the people who are living on the streets during this crisis .
Nearby Topaz Park was chosen by the city back in March as a designated site for homeless people to camp during the pandemic to help prevent the virus from spreading, with the eventual goal of finding indoor temporary shelter for the people staying in the park .
Not only will it provide safer accommodation for these people and reduce the number of coronavirus transmissions, but it will provide them with access to necessary services, with the hope that this will transition into something more permanent, even after the current health crisis is over.
“The purchase of the Comfort Inn, combined with medical and social supports, will help people make the transition from the street to permanent housing,” says Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction .
The people staying at the hotel will have access to meals, healthcare, addictions treatment, as well as storage for personal items. The building will be staffed all day and night to provide support and security for the residents, as well as for the surrounding community .
Two Problems, One Solution
The hotels for the homeless initiative is also helping another segment of society that has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: the tourism industry. To staff the hotel, the province is rehiring hotel workers who were laid off when lockdown began. Simpson describes this as a “win-win situation”, since it is providing hotel staff the opportunity to earn a paycheck while the tourism and travel industry remains closed .
A Long-Term Solution
The city’s mayor, Lisa Helps, is hoping that this significant investment from the province will provide housing to those who need it most, and that the support they receive here will help them to make the transition from the street to permanent housing.
“This site has significant redevelopment potential to provide a range of affordable housing in the long term. I look forward to working with the community and with BC Housing to determine the long-term use of this site,” she said .
BC Housing will also be setting up an advisory committee to help get feedback from the surrounding community about the transition .
Has COVID-19 Proven that Canada can Cure Homelessness?
The “housing first” method for tackling the issue of homelessness has long been talked about as the most effective strategy to eradicate the issue, but has been somewhat difficult to implement. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it appears that Canada may have found a way to do it.
Naheed Dosani, a physician who provides health care to people experiencing homelessness and serves as medical director of the response to homelessness during COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada, says that for decades we have been trying to deliver case management, mental health care, medical care and many other services to people on the street or in shelters. And it hasn’t been working .
During the pandemic, however, he has witnessed an amazing capacity for all levels of government to work together with community advocates, agencies and health workers, when everybody wants to.
“As we strive to distance ourselves socially and save our society from the worst-case scenarios we are seeing elsewhere, some governments have recognized that homeless people have special needs,” he says. “As they bunch together on street corners, in shelter dining areas and in dormitories, there has been a realization: even if all housed-Canadians shelter in place, those without a home could become sick and further spread the disease.” 
He notes, however, that these short-term solutions to ensure that homeless people are able to properly distance themselves to reduce the spread of the virus still do not address the gaps that exist in the current shelter system. He emphasises that having a roof over their heads and a dignified place to stay allows them better access to support and health services that could put them back on their feet, and is the care and compassion that all Canadians deserve.
“So, my question is this,” he says. “When we have come through this crisis, are we prepared to push people back out to where they were, on the streets and in shelters? Or are we ready to accept that we have the solution to homelessness in our hands? We just need the moral and political will to make it happen.”