The Shepherds of Good Hope will reopen its indoor soup kitchen early in October after six months of serving meals outside.
The move is one of several that the city’s largest homeless shelter is making in preparation for the return of cold weather – and the second wave of COVID-19.
“We’re preparing to bring people back inside, and we’re looking at how we do that safely,” said Deirdre Freiheit, president and chief executive officer of the Shepherds of Good Hope.
In March, as COVID-19 spread rapidly in Ottawa, the Shepherds closed its soup kitchen because physical distancing was next to impossible. The Murray Street facility feeds as many as 700 people a day.
A staff parking lot was quickly converted into an open-air soup kitchen with tents and picnic tables. Lines were painted on the ground to direct traffic and keep people two metres apart.
All of the Shepherds other services were similarly remodelled to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The strategy proved successful. Six Shepherds clients contracted COVID-19 in May and June, but they were quickly isolated and the spread was contained without any fatalities.
The new challenge for the shelter is to bring clients back inside this fall without triggering a major outbreak.
Reopening the soup kitchen does not mean going back to the pre-COVID model, Freiheit said. Only 30 people will be allowed into the soup kitchen at any given time so that they can physically distance. Plexiglass barriers have been added to the serving area and to tables, and clients will be asked to wear masks.
The new limit on guests means that meals will take much longer to serve – and will require more volunteers.
“We’re going to be serving meals 12 hours a day and doing the cleaning in between,” said Freiheit.
Extra cleaning staff has been hired to work in the evenings and overnight. The cleaning staff has essentially been doubled, she said, since the advent of COVID-19.
The Shepherds used to ask clients to leave the shelter in the daytime to make it easier to clean. But during COVID-19, with libraries, malls and drop-in centres often closed, the Shepherds has allowed clients to remain in the shelter for all but one hour a day. In that hour, the dorm rooms are scoured.
“Cleaning is one of the big things we’ve been able to do to mitigate the risks of COVID since the homeless can’t physically distance like you and me,” Freiheit said.
Clients are provided with masks and hand sanitizer, while staff members wear full personal protective equipment.
During the summer months, many homeless people camped outside rather than risk staying in a shelter. Freiheit expects that will change as the calendar moves into October and November, which will increase pressure on all the downtown shelters.
“We just can’t have the shelters become full again. That’s our biggest fear,” she said. “We can’t have things go back to the ways things were pre-COVID with overcrowding in the shelters.”
The City of Ottawa opened a homeless shelter in early May at the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre to address overcrowding in the system. That temporary shelter has since been moved to the Dempsey Community Centre, on Russell Road.
“More people are going to need to come inside,” Freiheit said, “and unless we can find housing for people, it’s going to continue to be a huge challenge.”
Freiheit asked donors to consider making cash donations to the Shepherds since that money can be stretched through bulk purchasing. Winter boots and coats are also in demand.