‘Wasn’t a blueprint to do it,’ but isolation centre has already welcomed nearly 30 homeless Winnipeggers

By | April 23, 2020

The COVID-19 isolation centre for Winnipeg’s homeless population has already housed more than two dozen people — and it hasn’t reached its full operating capacity yet, says Main Street Project executive director Rick Lees.

At the beginning of April, the Manitoba government announced it was adding 142 beds at shelters throughout the province to help people experiencing homelessness follow physical distancing protocols, and to give them a place to stay while waiting for test results, or if they’ve already tested positive for COVID-19.

That included setting up an isolation centre in a vacant Manitoba Housing apartment on Sargent Avenue in Winnipeg, which is being run by Main Street Project.

Originally, 31 beds were to be made available at the six-storey isolation facility, but Lees said Wednesday that’s been stretched to 39 beds. Right now, 28 units are operational, and Lees is aiming to have the other 11 will be available to house people by the end of the week.

Overall, the project has been “exhilarating” and a success, Lees said. But it has “demanded all of our efforts to get it up and running.”

“It’s been challenging because much of the infrastructure that we’re putting in was not there, and we’ve had to learn as we go.… There wasn’t a blueprint to do it.”

Main Street Project has slowly introduced patients in stages, Lees said. The non-profit agency opened the centre with 10 units available. “[We’ve] been adding units as we go, just to stay ahead of people coming in,” said Lees.

Most people are being referred to the Sargent isolation centre from hospital emergency rooms, he noted, and Main Street Project staggers admissions so demand isn’t overwhelming.

The centre, which has been open for less than three weeks, has seen 28 residents in total, Lees said, though only 12 suites were occupied as of Wednesday.

Main Street Project is also trying to prepare the former Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street, which the group purchased in the fall of 2018, as an isolation centre. That facility could include up to 120 beds. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

Each person’s length of stay is about four days on average, because that’s how long it takes for tests results to come back, he said. No one who has stayed at the isolation centre has tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One person at the centre developed “a rapid onset of symptoms,” including a fever and respiratory issues, Lees said, and was sent to hospital. But they have since returned and tested negative for the novel coronavirus.

Lees hopes a COVID-19 testing site specifically for homeless people will be open soon. If and when that happens, Main Street Project will have to find more available isolation spaces, he said.

Ideally, all patients would be able to stay at the Sargent isolation centre. But if needed, a 76,000-square-foot facility on Disraeli Highway, with space for 190 beds, has just opened.

Main Street Project is also trying to prep the former Mitchell Fabrics building on Main Street, which the group purchased in the fall of 2018. That facility is big enough to handle 120 beds.

‘It’s a strain’

As with all projects, there have been challenges, Lees said. One of those is that pre-existing staff members of Main Street Project now have a heavier workload.

The isolation centre is run mainly by registered and licensed practical nurses, and there were many people ready to help when the agency put out the call, Lees explained.

“But those folks have to then partner with an existing staff [member], because they’re new and they have to learn about what we do,” he said. “It’s put a strain on the existing staff for not only doing their jobs, but they’re acting as trainers.”

On top of that, between 10 and 15 staff members at the centre — about 10 per cent, Lees said — are constantly in various stages of isolation, quarantine or testing, because of possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Staff are screened as they enter the facility, and if a staff member feels symptomatic, they’ll be tested for the illness.

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Another hitch is that some tradespeople are not willing to come into the building to fix things after they learn what its purpose is, Lees said, and Main Street Project has had to send in its own facilities crew to make adjustments.

“That’s been somewhat demoralizing, in a way, because that’s not the response you expect,” he said, adding that his staff are used to “running toward the fire” and have found ways to work around the problem.

‘They want to wander’

Another challenge is trying to keep people at the facility in isolation.

“People who are homeless generally are not accustomed to being trapped in one room, so they want to wander,” Lees said.

“Technically, to be properly functioning, an isolation unit means you stay in your room, we bring you your meals, we do your vitals checks four times a day, and you have your TV, your phone and your space — but you have to stay there.”

People staying at the facility are allowed to be outside in a makeshift common area, said Lees, but keeping them on the grounds and explaining why it’s important they adhere to public health rules has been a challenge.

A third issue is that some of the people staying at the centre have addictions, and staff are trying to help residents manage them, Lees said.

The facility is not acting as a detox centre, he added, because of fear residents will go into withdrawal.

That said, three of the people who have stayed at the facility, upon leaving, asked if they could to go to medical detox facilities.

“That’s a silver lining,” said Lees.

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