Pandemic puts a squeeze on those serving homeless and poor in Edmonton

20 March 2020

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As coronavirus restrictions deepen for everyone, so does the strain on those providing for the poor.

Catholic agencies and churches that provide hot meals and clothing those in need are having to make changes to what they can provide and how they do it while they practise social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And they are reiterating an appeal for donations of food and clothing.

The Marian Centre in Edmonton’s inner city normally serves hot meals four days a week and on Fridays, it opens up its clothing room to the homeless. As of March 17, the centre was instead handing out bagged lunches and allowing only volunteers into the clothing room to pick up requested items.

It’s no small adjustment for homeless people served by the centre.

“It’s a big change, because they don’t have places where they can come in, and have that personal contact with someone, and they want a place to come in and warm up,” said Hugo Isaza, director of the Marian Centre. “Many shelters are doing the same. So it’s a big sacrifice.”

Hugo Isaza

“We don’t have a way of screening for symptoms at the door, if a person has a fever or not, so we can’t let anyone into the building,” Isaza explained. “It’s also to protect our staff and volunteers and the ‘Christopher brothers.’ We don’t call them homeless.”

St. Christopher is the patron saint of travellers and, in particular during COVID-19, is among 14 saints known as the Holy Helpers whose intercession is particularly effective against disease.

At Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in downtown Edmonton, donations from the Salvation Army and Cobbs Bread have been postponed until further notice. As many as three days a week, a truck filled with donations of bread, baking, vegetables, fruits and other grocery items had pulled up in front of the church, where 50-60 people waited for them.

Sacred Heart is still putting some donated items into individual food hampers, but the donations will soon run out. A planned garage sale of clothing and other items, with most items priced at 25 cents, was scheduled for the March 21-22 weekend. That has been postponed.

“We continue to serve people with food hampers from what we have in stock,” said Rev. Susai Jesu, the pastor of Sacred Heart. “It’s ongoing challenge, but now it’s going to be harder for people … It’s a very troubling situation.”

As of March 20, a man in his 60s with underlying health conditions become Alberta’s recorded its first death from COVID-19. There were 195 confirmed cases in the province. The virus has caused a worldwide pandemic with more than 1,000 cases in Canada and more than 275,000 worldwide.

The Marian Centre will take requests for clothing rather than having clients in the room.

Catholic Central High School in Lethbridge has confirmed that one person associated with the school has tested positive for COVID-19. However, there is no additional information that Holy Spirit Catholic School Division can be provide including whether the person is a student or staff.

Three Calgary students have also tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email sent to parents and guardians of students in the Calgary Catholic School District on March 21. The names of the students and schools have not been released but the principals have been made aware and will be contacting the community with an update from Alberta Health Services about the situation.

And Dr. Allan Woo, president of the Saskatchewan Medical Association, said in a statement he had contracted COVID-19 and that he believes he caught it at a curling bonspiel in Edmonton held from March 11 to 14

In Edmonton, those living on the streets – like Cindy Mandin – are grateful for what they’ve received.

“It’s still nice to have something when you look at it that way,” said Mandin, who has been living on the streets for three years, lining up for free meals when she can and sleeping at the Hope Mission at night.

Cindy Mandin

Mandin has been homeless after she was laid off for her job after 25 years in computer graphics. Since then, she’s been waiting to qualify for social welfare. Now, life on the streets has become a lot tougher  since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Public places and food courts where Mandin and other homeless and vulnerable people could warm up and have a coffee, such as City Centre shopping mall and University Square, are no longer open.

The Edmonton Expo Centre will be used as an overflow homeless shelter to help manage the spread of COVID-19, Premier Jason Kenney said in the legislature March 20. The city also declared a local state of emergency giving it increased powers to fight the virus spread.

Alberta Health Services staff will assist in managing the outbreak among the homeless population and Homeward Trust will be coordinating resources.

Mayor Don Iveson called any outbreak among the homeless and vulnerable an “avoidable public health tragedy.” He said private and city facilities will be used temporarily to support roughly 1,900 people experiencing homelessness in Edmonton during the pandemic.

Other temporary homeless shelters will be announced in the come days.

Under a provincial state of emergency, Kenney implemented further aggressive measures to contain the COVID-19 virus. Attendance is banned in bars, recreational centres, museums and other non-essential public places. Restaurants can serve only half their capacity.

Hugo Isaza, director of the Marian Centre, distributes sandwiches to the city’s needy.

Speaking from experience, Mandin expects more people will find themselves homeless as they struggle to maintain a job, finances, a home and lifestyle under the COVID-19 outbreak restrictions.

“That’s going to hurt more,” she said. “A lot of places are closed down now.”

For Mandin, recommendations on social distancing to avoid COVID-19 are moot.

“To me it doesn’t really mean much,” she laughed. “In a situation like this, you go where you can and you don’t actually want to be around that many people anyway.”

Father Jesu said social distancing is a challenge for Sacred Heart parish. He is following crowd restrictions on funerals and wakes, for example, following limits set by the Archdiocese of Edmonton and government. Still, it’s hard for family and relatives to accept.

Mark Olszewski

Amidst the upheaval over COVID-19, relief agencies say volunteers and donations are still needed.

At the Marian Centre, a ministry of the Madonna House apostolate, some volunteers have had to cancel, in part due to coronavirus concerns, while others are working double shifts, Isaza said.

“I’m young but we have a few people who are very elderly and vulnerable to the virus,” said Mark Olszewski, who lives at Madonna House. “We have to kind of strike up a balance of being available to the people we are serving in the neighbourhood and, on the other hand, making sure that we’re not exposing our brothers and sisters who live here to the virus.”

Olszewski is concerned, but not worried. “God’s in charge and I really do think he’s taking care of us.”

In addition to clothing, Marian Centre is asking for donations of items for its packed lunches, including individual yogurts, tuna snack packs, trail mix, granola bars and juice boxes. Isaza asks donors or volunteers to call the Marian Centre for more information.

Sacred Heart is accepting donations at the church rectory.

Going forward, churches and relief agencies are trying to accommodate rapid changes to protect against COVID-19 in a situation that can best be described as fluid.

“It’s week by week and day by day,” Isaza said.