As Manitobans are finding it difficult to stay in their homes, a population without shelter of their own is being hit even harder by the pandemic.

End Homelessness Winnipeg says lack of housing to isolate in is creating a problem for Manitoba's unsheltered population battling COVID-19.

"Without people having their own place to isolate, it is a huge challenge for this population," Lucille Bruce, the CEO of End Homelessness Winnipeg says.

When there is a space for people to go to, they need to be careful not to gather closely. Bruce says they have funded warming shelters, such as Main Street Project's drop-in space, will help protect people from the cold while the organization continues to work to stop the spread of the virus.

In Manitoba, half of all COVID-19 cases are from community transmission, meaning they have no known link to other people with the virus.

"We definitely are very well aware that the spread in the homelessness population has increased significantly," Bruce says.

The Chief Public Health Officer is concerned about the rising number of cases in the unsheltered population.

"We have seen a disproportionate effect and of course the public health restrictions we have in place do not provide the same level of benefit for people who are under-housed or living in poverty or near poverty."

Roussin says they are looking at rapid testing for this population and may have more to come on how the province is looking to help this population during the pandemic. 

Dr. Brent Roussin says itis a challenge for the unsheltered to stay healthy, saying there is a direct link between economic status and health.

"We know that income is a major determinant of health and so this is something that public health is aware of and tries to deal with as best we can."

In Winnipeg, 307 people from an Unknown Community Area, which includes those who do not have a fixed address and those who are unable to provide an accurate address, have contracted COVID-19. While not all of the 307 people are homeless, the province's isolation shelters for the homeless population is in high demand.

A total of 79 isolation units have been created for the unsheltered population. Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa says these beds are frequently used.

"Over the past weeks, as I have reported previously, our 39-bed unit has been functioning almost at full capacity. We opened a second facility for 22 spaces, and that was expanded to 40 in recent days," she says. "It is a much welcome space that we require."

These units have also reduced the number of people seeking a bed at homeless shelters. 

As these spaces are in hotels, there is no possibility of turning the isolation units into permanent housing. 

lucille bruceLucille Bruce says access to homes will be key in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the unsheltered population. (End Homelessness Winnipeg)

"People need to have their own homes. If we are going to really address homelessness and we want people to stay safe during his pandemic, people need to be able to have their own homes to be able to isolate in. We need to address housing supply, howe barrier housing for people to be able to stay safe during the pandemic," Bruce says.

Staying healthy while living on the street comes with its challenges due to public spaces being closed.

Fewer people have been going to shelters, which Bruce believes is out of fear of contracting the virus. This could change in the winter as things get colder. 

"It is quite nerve-wracking for clients because there are so many fears out there," Angelika Fletcher, the manager of Siloam's Saul Sair Health Centre says. "I think they find some comfort in knowing they are not forgotten."

Siloam Mission is housing a consistent group of people experiencing chronic homelessness who sleep and eat at the shelter.

Fletcher says those people are able to continue to use the medical centre.

"We want to take care of them. We want to make sure they are staying safe and healthy."

If one of Siloam's clients believes they have COVID-19 or has symptoms, they can get tested at Thunderbird House down the street. 

For others not in the groups of clients sleeping at the shelter, Siloam is offering a drop-in service to feed people where they use the time to check in with them and educate people on COVID-19.

"We can still help them out not to feel totally lost and forgotten out there."

Fletcher says the centre has had very few cases of COVID-19, which she attributes to early education.

"We are trying to do a lot of education for clients as we see them on where they can go, where they can go, where they can sleep. It is really hard to do that kind of education with clients that are someone else every night."

Siloam and other shelters are working together to make sure everyone has somewhere safe to go.

Due to privacy concerns, Fletcher is unable to say much about their total of nine COVID-19 cases since the pandemic but says they have been doing very well thanks to the health measures they have been implementing.

Bruce says End Homelessness Winnipeg has been working with the shelters since the start of the pandemic as part of their pandemic response team to help keep people safe, despite their circumstances. As much as they continue to plan and implement protocols, Bruce says no measure will be as helpful as people having their own home.