How are homeless shelters impacted by COVID-19?

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having no home or permanent

place of residence

For homeless individuals during this time, tents are one of the most accessible forms of protection from COVID-19.


How likely are individuals facing homeless to contract COVID-19 compared to higher-income individuals?

Individuals experiencing homelessness are more likely to contract COVID-19 for two reasons. The first reason is they commonly do not have access to necessities such as masks and hand sanitizer. And the second reason is that those facing homelessness are more likely to have underlying medical conditions than the general population. Many stipulate that homeless individuals are five times more likely to die from COVID-19. 

What unique challenges do those facing homelessness encounter during COVID-19?

Unfortunately, a majority of homeless individuals have no or minimal access to COVID-19 protection (ie. masks, hand sanitizer) because of the price of such supplies. In addition to this, housing shelters have had to limit the number of beds they provide in order to meet provincial guidelines and COVID-19 safety requirements. This in turn has left a larger amount of homeless individuals isolated and with no place to stay.

How do those facing homelessness quarantine?

There are service providers that arrange quarantines for homeless individuals, however, many individuals are forced to self-isolate with no assistance and no shelter.

How have homeless rates been changing?

Over the past five years, the number of homeless individuals across Canada has continuously risen. From 2019-2020, there was a 2% rise in homelessness. In 2019, there were an estimated 423 emergency beds and 16,271 permanent beds throughout shelters in Canada.

Image description:
Vaccine clinic for those facing homelessness in the United States

What do those working in shelters have to say?

Shepherds of Good Hope

Shepherds of Good Hope is a series of soup kitchens and shelters in Ottawa. I had the opportunity to speak with Dean, an Assistant Manager at Shepherds. During my interview with Dean, he expressed that the risk and reality of COVID-19 invading those facilities has put stress on everyone.

Shepherd’s facilities are constantly adapting their services in response to the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, they were forced to reassess how they could serve those in need without contributing to the spread of the virus.

At their soup kitchen, they began by serving clients at the door rather than allowing them in. Despite their initial hope for the plan, this negatively impacted the clients and staff who replied on and worked in the kitchen. Because the staff were unable to provide the same level of support as usual, overdoses near their facility increased. The ramification of COVID-19, even at the beginning of the pandemic, pained the staff because of how greatly it hurt their clients.

At their shelter, Shepher originally limited the number of beds offered. Even with these changes, it was impossible to meet social distance requirements, and given that they couldn’t screen all clients for COVID-19, positive cases filed through the rooms. Dean stated that their highest rate of infections was in January 2021 when 20+ staff and 30-80 clients were sick. To manage this mass difficulty, other staff members worked overtime and in several facilities to compensate. Infected clients were sent to isolation centers provided by Ottawa’s Intercity Health, and anyone they were in close contact with was isolated in shelters as well.

Another consuming struggle that Shepherd’s faced was proper equipment. Prior to the pandemic, Shepherd’s had gloves and sanitizing products, but never in the quantity they would need. Last year, when they were struggling to find gloves, they made an ally in a tattoo parlor nearby that had a large supply. Without their help, Shepherd’s facilities would not have been able to function at the same rate. As of now, the staff is required to wear PPE every day. Each staff member has access to two masks and three to five gloves per day. The cost of those supplies is $338 CAD per week, and if it were to rise, they would possibly have to close their doors.

However, perhaps one of the most profound impacts of COVID-19 in shelters is the effect on people. Every day, staff put in maximum effort to help those who have struggled and have no place to stay. But when they can’t because of COVID-19, team morale lowers. Staff and the clients who come to Shepherd’s have an interconnected relationship that both parties rely on. Those facing homelessness who are forced to isolate themselves have faced unimaginable challenges. Recent studies have shown that there is a correlation between isolation and addiction. Not only does the restrictions on shelters limit the number of beds they can offer, but it also fuels potential relapses.

Between the financial difficulties, increased overdoses and relapses, and mental health struggles, COVID-19 in homeless services creates a whirlwind of negative effects. to put a stop to these devastating results we need to provide further support for homeless services and homeless populations.

For now, what can be done to help?


  • Volunteer! Helping out is one of the best ways you can make a change. Especially during the pandemic, shelters are in need of volunteers. This being said, a lot of locations won’t allow you to come inside because of the possible risks. Unfortunately, I am unable to volunteer at the moment because my province Ontario is under lockdown and we have a stay-at-home order. When the lockdown is lifted, I hope to volunteer with Shepherds of Good Hope. Currently, if you are in an area with few restrictions, you can help by doing any of the things below.
    • Transport homeless individuals to healthcare facilities
    • Supply information (where they can sign-up for vaccines, what is the status of the pandemic)
  • Spread awareness. This doesn’t mean you have to dedicate every second to being an advocate (although if you want to that’s great!), but bringing up the conversation at your next family dinner or when talking with your friends can make an impact. The only way to make change is by bringing awareness to the cause first. Personally, every week, I will take one tangible step to educate myself on the presence of housing insecurity in my community. This will include watching documentary films, reading books and news articles, and listening to podcasts. In addition, I will continue to speak with my family and peers on this prevalent topic. My conversation with Dean reminded challenged me to be more empathetic towards those experiencing homelessness.

Your community and government

  • Make homeless populations a priority for vaccines. This all depends on where you live. Some states (in the U.S.) put the homeless population above the general population but not all. Providing vaccines to homeless populations would decrease the disproportional death rates and allow shelters to accept more clients.
  • Offering accessible COVID-19 testing to the homeless population. This also depends on where you live. COVID-19 testing has become fairly accessible to the general public in the U.S. and Canada, but it is not accessible to homeless individuals who have no form of transportation.
  • Providing mobile medical centers to allow homeless individuals the opportunity to easily access vaccines. Getting a vaccine often requires you to travel long distances which isn’t an option for those facing homelessness. Offering mobile medical centers for vaccines would greatly increase the number of homeless individuals getting them.


  • Create a reliable supply of free masks and hand sanitizer for those in need. Whether this is through an external organization or through the manufacturing companies, free maks and hand sanitizer would make a huge difference for homeless populations. Both of these materials are currently very difficult to get for free. If we can change this, we could save thousands of lives and limit the spread of COVID-19 among homeless populations.
  • Stabilize the increasing homeless rate. According to the Canadian Observatory of Homelessness, loss of employment is responsible for 35% of people losing their home. If we were able to change this, then we could stabilize or even reverse the increase in homelessness.

Feedback and Action: I want to hear about you and your community!

Where could you volunteer in your community?
Where does the homeless population lie on the vaccine list in your area?
What information from my post surprised you?
What is the state of homelessness in your local community?
How have you been of service to those in your community facing homelessness?
How do you feel that you can be beneficial to supporting homeless shelters right now?

Have feedback? Use the Padlet below to respond

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  1. Louise,

    Great job! This is such a relevant issue to what has occurred this past year and thank you for being the voice for a marginalized group. I appreciate your passion and the solutions your propose. Keep sharing your voice!

  2. This is a really interesting topic that I hadn’t previously considered! Your presentation was super informative, thank you! I was surprised at how negatively COVID-19 affected the aid that shelters were able to give. I live near San Francisco County, an area known for its high homeless population, and the plan seems to be to consider where the homeless individually fall on the priority list, and then to send mobile vaccine teams to sites with a high homeless population.

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