COVID-19

COVID cases surge in Victoria temporary housing—but residents and staff say they have only ‘whispers and rumours’ for information

One housing worker says facilities aren’t prepared for outbreaks. The province, meanwhile, has released no information

By Jolene Rudisuela
September 22, 2021
COVID-19

COVID cases surge in Victoria temporary housing—but residents and staff say they have only ‘whispers and rumours’ for information

One housing worker says facilities aren’t prepared for outbreaks. The province, meanwhile, has released no information

One resident of the former Paul's Motor Inn says there are currently 30 COVID cases at the temporary housing site. Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
COVID-19

COVID cases surge in Victoria temporary housing—but residents and staff say they have only ‘whispers and rumours’ for information

One housing worker says facilities aren’t prepared for outbreaks. The province, meanwhile, has released no information

By Jolene Rudisuela
September 22, 2021
Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
COVID cases surge in Victoria temporary housing—but residents and staff say they have only ‘whispers and rumours’ for information
One resident of the former Paul's Motor Inn says there are currently 30 COVID cases at the temporary housing site. Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Jerri Johnson mainly keeps to herself. She rarely invites visitors into her home and doesn’t often interact with her neighbours at the former Paul’s Motor Inn, now a supportive housing facility called Soleil.

But even so, the news of COVID-19 cases at the housing site has put her on edge.

Johnson, 60, thinks she had COVID last year when she first moved into the site. She doesn’t know for sure because she never got tested, but she described an “outrageous” fever, gastrointestinal issues, and the terrifying feeling of being barely able to breathe.

“I could not go outside to smoke—that’s how sick I was,” she said. “I just really didn’t know if I was going to survive it.”

Ten days ago, Johnson noticed that staff had begun donning more personal protective equipment and started wearing full-body protective suits. She was told later that week by a fellow resident that 10 staff members at the facility had contracted COVID-19.

Soleil is just one of several temporary housing facilities in Victoria with rising COVID-19 cases. The province has not revealed which locations are affected or how many people have so far contracted the virus. However, multiple sources have confirmed to Capital Daily that there are currently cases at the former Paul’s Motor Inn, Muncey Place on Blanshard Street (formerly a Comfort Inn), the Travelodge, and 844 Johnson St.

Citing privacy concerns, neither BC Housing, PHS Community Services Society, nor Our Place would comment on the number or locations of cases, and they have not publicly released detailed information on the outbreaks. In the absence of solid information, workers and residents are left speculating on the severity of the outbreaks; estimates on the number of cases since Labour Day range from 150 to 240.

Workers say they have received no guidance from the province on how to respond, or even how to access testing.

In a Sept. 10 media availability, Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick confirmed the presence of “clusters,” saying the province has not yet defined any outbreaks. The presence of cases among the unhoused community is not surprising given the number of COVID cases in the South Island, he said, and if this grows into a full-fledged outbreak, “we would certainly publicize that.”

Island Health later clarified that clusters are generally not upgraded to outbreaks in communities unless it’s determined that there is significant risk to the wider public. That distinction is at the discretion of public health officials.

However, one housing worker at a BC Housing-funded supportive housing facility says the lack of information from Island Health is just sowing fear and uncertainty in a community that is already more vulnerable to the virus.

“It feels like it’s just trying to sweep it under the rug to, you know, to hide how insufficient and dangerous the communal housing in the city is, as well as how unbelievably mismanaged the response to the current outbreak has been,” said Kelsey, whose name has been changed to protect her employment. “It just feels like another example of the way that the lives of people experiencing homelessness, [and] drug users living in poverty, are just devalued and ignored.”

Whispers and rumours

Kelvin Houston, a resident at the Capital City Center hotel, started self-isolating last week when he came down with cold-like symptoms. He thinks it’s just allergies, he said over the phone, adding that employees at the housing site have been helping him by bringing food, water, and other extra supplies he needs while he recovers.

Houston says he hasn’t been told how many COVID cases there are at his housing site, let alone any of the others in the city. But he also hasn’t asked.

“All I know is that people showed up at my door in hazmat suits the other day and I was kind of a little concerned,” he said.

Michael Scott, a resident of Soleil just across the street, said he’s been keeping to himself but has been feeling paranoid and stressed since hearing about the cases in his home.

“I’m scared to touch the door handle,” he said. “My hands are so dry right now from [hand sanitizer] that they’re turning into prunes, almost.”

The last he heard, there were 20 cases at his housing facility. Another Soleil resident, Amanda, said she’d heard there were 30. It’s more than enough to make her worry. “I don’t like being vulnerable, and I don’t like feeling scared in my own home,” she said.

The one constant is that no one knows exactly what’s going on; Kelsey says despite working in a housing facility, she hasn’t been privy to much information about the outbreak either. The latest numbers she’s heard—240 cases, on Sunday—were through a coworker, who heard it from their supervisor.

“For me, what's felt so frustrating is that all of the information me and my coworkers have been getting has just been like these whispers and rumours and there's been no official guidance or information or even reassurance provided to us by our management,” she said. “We haven't even had an email sent out.”

That lack of communication has extended to a lack of guidance and plans on what to do to address the outbreaks. Kelsey says nothing has been communicated to her in terms of what to do if a resident is symptomatic, how to get someone tested, and how to care for a resident who does come down with COVID.

“I know there are apparently these higher level discussions being had, and I hope there’s plans being made. But none of those plans or discussions have trickled down to frontline staff actually doing the work, or at least not at my work,” Kelsey said. “Now here we are, headed into basically what seems like the worst-case scenario, with, from where I’m sitting, no coherent plans in place.”

Grant McKenzie, director of communications with Our Place, says regular emails have gone out to the organization’s staff and volunteers with detailed information about the outbreaks at their specific facilities and how to respond. This includes information on which residents have tested positive or are experiencing symptoms. Residents, he says, are informed when there is at least one case at the site where they live, but no numbers are shared for privacy reasons.

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

The Capital Daily Newsletter

Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

False sense of security

In April, 20 homeless shelters in Toronto were hit with COVID outbreaks which affected more than 320 people experiencing homelessness. At least one person died. In September and October 2020, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside saw the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the city.

Victoria’s unhoused community, on the other hand, has managed to avoid any COVID outbreaks or clusters up until now.

“Amazingly, Victoria has been unaffected by COVID for a year and a half, unlike most Canadian cities, where there’s been quite substantial outbreaks in some,” said Julian Daly, CEO of Our Place Society. “I think we thought that maybe we’d been spared, but obviously not.”

On Sept. 15, the organization closed its drop-in community space for the day both because of an escalation of violent incidents and some clients refusing to wear masks inside. The closure, according to Daly, was in order to regroup and reassess safety protocols. Since then, Our Place has created a single-point of entry to prevent people from entering the facility without a mask.

“It’s always been a requirement [during the pandemic] that people be masked,” he said. “But particularly with the COVID outbreak, we wanted to be extra vigilant in that.”

The number of people who can eat in dining facilities has also been limited to 30 at both the drop-in and housing facilities.

In a statement, BC Housing said each of the shelters it funds have protocols in place, including reduced capacity, mask requirements, and regular hand washing and sanitizing for guests and staff.

However, Kelsey says, maybe because of a false sense of security, the COVID safety plans set up at the beginning of the pandemic have since fallen by the wayside, and mask wearing rules aren’t always followed.

The lapses in safety are particularly risky in shelter settings because the people they serve tend to fall within medically vulnerable groups.

Shae Perkins, an advocate for the unhoused community, has been very concerned about the outbreak since his mother told him about COVID cases in the facility she lives in. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he says, and has been dealing with recurrent infections in her heart, spine, and lungs.

She is one of many living in these housing facilities with compromised immune systems, for whom a COVID-19 infection is more likely to be severe or even deadly than it is for the general population.

Last fall, Perkins purchased a large tent and set it up in Beacon Hill Park to act as a support centre, where people living in the park could come to warm up and access coffee, food, water, blankets, jackets, and harm-reduction supplies. He says he is frustrated that 24/7 camping ended earlier this year—due to fury from parts of the public and a lawsuit—even though the pandemic did not end.

People tenting in parks were able to keep their distance and keep each other safe, he says, adding that being outside has been proven to significantly reduce the danger of contracting COVID.

“This is one of the biggest reasons that folks were camping: because they didn’t want to be in the shelters,” he said. “They didn’t want to be at the housing sites; they didn’t want to be put into these situations where they’re far more likely to get exposed to COVID.”

Daly says he doesn’t know how the unhoused community has avoided an outbreak until now, but agrees that the reason the government allowed camping in the first place was to keep them safer. However, he maintains that some of the hotels have successfully housed people for more than a year with no outbreaks. And having cases at these housing sites rather than encampments allows support workers to better monitor sick residents and make sure they have what they need.

According to Stanwick, Island Health is working with different outreach teams at congregate settings to institute measures to support people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and allow them to be managed on-site. This includes ensuring they have everything from food to harm-reduction supplies, including a safe drug supply.

However, for people with no fixed address staying either at a shelter or on the street, there is currently nowhere to isolate.

“If they go in a tent on the boulevard, they’re kicked out every morning,” McKenzie said. “And so where are they going to go? Well, they’re going to go into Our Place drop in or McDonald’s. That’s one area where I feel that we’re being let down on is that we don’t have a place for people with no fixed address where they could go and self-isolate.”

McKenzie says there have been discussions about opening a 10-bed isolation centre, but he says more beds are needed. “But when you think of how difficult it was to get places to house people, I honestly have no idea where they would find such a place.”

Because of the high likelihood of COVID-positive people needing to use Our Place services or coming to get a meal, staff have been instructed to treat everyone as if they have COVID and to take appropriate precautions.

“We know there’s COVID-positive people coming into our drop-in… so we’re being extremely vigilant around doing our best to control any further COVID outbreaks.”

Vaccination rates

The unhoused community was among the first to be offered the vaccine back in February and March, and Island Health “vax vans” have been hitting the streets making vaccines more accessible to anyone who wants one.

But vaccination rates are still thought to be lower in the unhoused community than in the general population. (Island Health has not released this data.)

Daly says hundreds of people have been vaccinated in clinics held at Our Place, but the organization is not permitted to require vaccination—and for privacy reasons, it does not ask or keep track of how many people using its services have gotten the shot.

“I suspect the rates are lower than in the general population,” he said. “I have a good sense that that would be the case.”

Kelsey, too, estimates that less than 50% of the residents of the building she works at are vaccinated. But she says for many it’s not lack of access holding them back, it’s the prevalence of misinformation.

A harm-reduction outreach worker, who asked not to be named for this story to protect their employment, said they have seen unsheltered folks—including some who were planning to get the shot—influenced by the messages of anti-vax protesters. Repeated anti-vax protests have occurred at locations where unhoused people are able to linger, like Centennial Square and on Pandora Street.

“I’ve witnessed white, fed, clothed anti-vaxx protesters coerce unsheltered people before, during, and after protests,” they wrote in a Facebook message. “Identifying a person who is consistently, systematically harmed by the state and inviting them to belong to something that ‘gives them a voice’ is predatory. And it’s killing people.”

Kelsey adds that many members of the unsheltered community have had negative experiences with the health-care system, so they may be more inclined to believe misinformation.

“A lot of the folks living on the streets are carrying these intergenerational histories of trauma and medical abuse, and so have really valid reasons to mistrust the medical system and social services,” she said. “Trying to sort of cross those barriers, it takes a really consistent and trauma-informed approach in order to do that.”

Daly says one of the effects of the current outbreaks is an uptick in residents getting vaccinated, because the situation is now so much closer to home. For some, this could be the first time people they know have contracted the virus. One of Our Place’s top priorities right now is to continue ensuring easy access to the vaccine to get more folks vaccinated, including housing staff.

Vaccinations had previously been booked for 96% of the organization’s staff, Daly said, but he could not confirm whether all of those staff members had actually received the vaccine. As of Oct. 28, Our Place will require all staff and volunteers to be fully vaccinated.

Scott, for his part, is double vaccinated, which has helped ease his anxiety, but he is also aware that the doses do not provide 100% protection. However, through the past two weeks, he has felt supported by the employees at Soleil, who he says have been doing the best they can under the circumstances.

This week, he has taken a few days off work at Red Cedar Cafe to keep himself and others safe. Because even if he keeps to himself at home, he believes the risk is too great right now.

“I don’t want to be the guy that passes it around.”

Update on Sept. 22 at 5:15pm: This story has been updated with additional information from Our Place regarding their internal response to the cluster of COVID cases.

— With files from Cameron Welch

contact@capitaldaily.ca

Support Your Community, Support Local Journalism

With paid membership, every penny goes directly to helping our newsroom continue its work and helps our team grow and expand our coverage

Become a Member

The Capital Daily Newsletter

Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Related News

Inside the COVID isolation units for unhoused patients in Victoria