Extra assist wanted for Saskatoon homeless earlier than second COVID-19 wave: advocate

A spokesperson for a group of shelters and agencies working to protect Saskatoon’s vulnerable population said they need more support to keep their clients safe, especially before a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus occurs.

Colleen Christopherson-Cote, of the Saskatoon Inter-Agency Response to COVID-19, said the provincial reopening strategy has largely ignored groups that work with homeless people and those suffering from substance abuse issues.

She also said the Inter-Agency Response does have a budget to keep everyone safe, which includes providing things like bottled water, food and personal protection equipment (PPE) for clients and staff for the next year, but it’s $237,000 short.

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The group includes more than 50 organizations, like AIDS Saskatoon and the Friendship Inn, which banded together in March when the coronavirus pandemic reached Saskatchewan.

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It has coordinated efforts and resources to keep the city’s vulnerable population safe and last week the City of Saskatoon gave it $117,000 to keep doing so.

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Christopherson-Cote said the group has developed a strong working relationship with the city, and that’s almost all the government help they’ve received.

“The bulk of the response… came from publicly-funded, private donations, community-driven resources and had very little to do with provincial investment,” she told Global News.

The $237,000 funding gap is on top of the City of Saskatoon funds and exists on top of the agencies’ regular budget requirements.

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Christopherson-Cote said providing essentials is expensive, and that the Inter-Agency Response is currently spending $30,000 on PPE every month — a cost that she worries will increase if the government makes masks mandatory and the price goes up.

She also said the provincial reopening strategy hasn’t included the kind of information the Inter-Agency organizations need, saying it doesn’t provide “for folks providing 1,100 meals, face-to-face, in a day,” referring to the Friendship Inn.

The Inn used to provide hot meals and has switched to only offering take-out.

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It’s one of the strategies the group created on their own.

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Christopherson-Cote said the group is now maintaining services to clients, that it’s monitoring COVID cases in the downtown core and is tracking “triggers” that would escalate a further response.

But she’s worried what would happen if the province is hit with a second wave and how it would affect services.

“If there happens to be a surge and we start talking about decreasing or closing services again there are a handful of things that we need to keep track of to make sure that people still have access to them.”

She doesn’t just mean access to food or government aid.

Public washrooms were closed in Saskatoon for many weeks starting in March, leaving homeless people with few good options to relieve or wash themselves.

In a statement, the Ministry of Social Services said it works closely with its community partners in Saskatoon to keep vulnerable people safe.

“We ask this organization to reach out to government representatives to have a conversation about what additional needs they may have. We are always open to meeting with community partners, and hearing their ideas on how we can better work together to serve vulnerable people in Saskatchewan.”

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