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Distancing for homeless worries advocates

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Kyle Bighetty, right, helps clean up the camp with other members during COVID-19 in Winnipeg Sunday. Bighetty wants to learn more about the virus, and to get a better understanding of what is happening.</p>


Kyle Bighetty, right, helps clean up the camp with other members during COVID-19 in Winnipeg Sunday. Bighetty wants to learn more about the virus, and to get a better understanding of what is happening.

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Advocates for Winnipeg’s homeless are worried that the message about social distancing to stem the tide of the coronavirus isn’t reaching the city’s less fortunate.

"If there’s a positive test, it’s going to complicate things significantly. We want everybody to be as healthy as possible," Siloam Mission CEO Jim Bell said.

"When people are experiencing homelessness, their health care is at risk generally, let alone without a virus. With something like the coronavirus, it’s just amped up.

"Because if we get one person who was in contact with somebody that is asymptomatic or has tested positive, that’s going to magnify the problem. So, we’re doing all that we can to educate when people come through the doors to our drop-in and of course when people stay in our shelter which has 110 beds on a daily basis."

Bell’s fears were on display Sunday at a downtown homeless camp and outside relief agencies.

Those people say they are aware of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they fully admit they don’t have all the facts.

Perhaps it’s why their makeshift tents remain in close proximity to one another, or why they’re not shy to stand next to their neighbour and share a smoke with them, which is what this Free Press reporter witnessed Sunday afternoon.

"I don’t know if any of them actually realize it’s (expletive) out there," said Kyle Bighetty, 30, who lives in a homeless camp on the corner of Henry Avenue and Austin Street. "I just don’t know what the virus does. I don’t know anything about it."

Bighetty and his community might not be experts in COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested. Bighetty expressed his desire to learn more about the virus, and so did two of his fellow camp members who approached this reporter and asked several questions to get a better understanding of what’s going on.

"Apparently it’s in the air we breathe, right?" asked a curious Edward Fleury, who’s also 30.

Despite being in a high traffic area, Bighetty and Fleury said they’re not worried about contracting the virus. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any concerns, though.

Bell said he’s also witnessed that same curiosity from the local homeless community. A couple weeks ago, Siloam Mission had a doctor volunteer to come in and educate visitors on the coronavirus and what measures people need to take.

"They were asking questions left, right and centre about the virus," said Bell.

While Siloam can enforce social distancing inside its doors, outside is a different story. Across the street from the Salvation Army: Centre of Hope building on Main Street, as many as six people could be seen sitting on the sidewalk next to each other on Sunday. It was a similar scene behind the Centre of Hope as nearly a dozen people were standing around in groups.

"I do know in speaking with people from other shelters on a daily basis and people not just from the shelters, but people from government agencies whether it be the province or the city, that this is a difficult (issue)," Bell said on social distancing. "As people are, let’s say lining up to grab a bagged lunch at an organization that is caring enough to hand out bagged lunches, it’s difficult to enforce social distancing rules, even if you put chalk on the ground. It helps, but (only to an extent)... It’s difficult to enforce, but I will tell you there are conversations happening all the time at the shelter level with other organizations and those we participate in phone calls with to see what more we can do as coronavirus runs its course."

Self-isolation isn’t a realistic option for most homeless people. The provincial government is trying to help with a recently announced total of $1.2 million going to Siloam Mission, the Salvation Army and the Main Street Project for resources that can isolate homeless people with symptoms or have tested positive.

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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