Kayla DeMong, the Housing Lead for the Saskatoon Inter-Agency Response to COVID-19, discusses the need for housing as a response to homelessness during COVID-19.  Kayla discusses the challenges of COVID-19 to the homeless population in Saskatoon and the importance of harm reduction to ensure an equitable and effective response to community needs during the crisis. Kayla DeMong is the Associate Executive Director and Community Support Coordinator for AIDS Saskatoon.

You can:

  • watch the full video conversation,
  • read the shortened interview transcript or,
  • view the key insights from the conversation.

Key Insights from the Interview

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How to use this resource:

  • Better understand the local impacts and solutions to homelessness in Saskatoon during COVID-19
  • Advocate for key policy solutions for housing as a need to fight homelessness
  • Better understand the importance of embedding harm reduction into a response to COVID-19

This article is shortened from the interview’s original length.

Our Community Engagement Specialist at the DSA, Erin Wolfson, sat down with Kayla DeMong to discuss homelessness, the need for housing and the importance of harm reduction to ensure an equitable and effective response to community needs during COVID-19. 

I’m going to start with a big, bold opening question: what is the experience and the reality right now for people in our community?

I think what we’re seeing is that experiences are really varied. We’re really seeing a very prominent line between ‘have’ and ‘have nots’. For people living in privilege, their experience through [COVID-19] is a lot different than the populations that we’re working to support. Things even as simple as social distancing and washing your hands – if you have no place to go to and nothing to wash your hands in, what are you supposed to do? 

Things that we’ve seen for years are really becoming more prominent. For example, messaging from the provincial government is very much geared towards the general population and not a lot specifically towards vulnerable populations. We often take for granted having a home to self-isolate and having the resources to self-isolate. Having access to emergency funding isn’t something that’s realistic for most of the people we work with. Having access to safe, secure housing is a huge barrier.

We can talk about access to safe and secure housing? How has the crisis impacted those experiencing housing insecurity or exasperated existing issues?

It definitely brings to the forefront the lack of support for our homeless population, and we’re seeing this across the province. Just the lack of resources and a real lack of interest in addressing those barriers. In urban settings, we have a slight advantage because there are still organizations that people can kind of connect to. But even that, we see huge congregations of people camping behind our building who normally were coming in for services. Because we have to offer support in a different way, their ability to access support and access resources has changed drastically. We’ve seen a huge increase in overdoses the last couple of weeks because again, there just aren’t those resources available. 

We have ten units that were given to us by the provincial government in Saskatoon – out of a three hundred and fifty unit stock – to address the homelessness issue in our city. That is not near enough. Those housing units finally opened up on Friday and they’re full. We’ve filled them. We have an emergency hotel where people can sel- isolate if they’ve been tested. But once their test comes back negative and they’re medically cleared, they can no longer access that hotel support. So that’s pretty fragmented support and not a lot of upstream thinking. It’s reactive support. If they’ve been tested and are potentially COVID positive, then they can get access to some resources for a short period of time and sometimes as much as 48 hours. But if they’re COVID negative, then they’re discharged back into homelessness or the shelter system, which is at capacity right now. 

There isn’t a lot of planning for people at a bigger scale. There is nobody, no system taking a step back and looking at, ’what would happen down the road with this pandemic if we supported this population now?’. What would happen if we do what other provinces have done an open hotel access up for people who are just homeless and that being the only requirement? What would the impacts be from that? 

We know just from anecdotal information based on our last point in time, our homeless count, the number of homeless people in Saskatoon is between 300 and 350 people. If those 350 people became COVID positive, the impact on our health system would be immense. That’s all of our health resources in our city right there with that one population. Never mind our family members that could potentially get sick and needing those supports and all of those up to the trickle effect is really large. But there’s nobody really stopping and saying, if we did this preventative piece now, what could be impacted? We see that all the time in this work, but now it’s just really exasperated. All of these systems are short circuiting people’s ability to be safe and supported.

So it sounds like you know what’s happening elsewhere in different provinces and some strategies and it sounds like you know the solutions. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing in other places?

There is a really good short video clip put out on the Saskatoon Inter-agency Response to COVID-19’s social media last week which looked at what had been done in other provinces. B.C. has put in billions of dollars into supporting their homeless population. Ontario and basically all the provinces would have put in millions of dollars. Our province has put in one hundred and seventy one thousand. 

I was just going through a preliminary draft research report that’s being done. It’s on my desk here by the Calgary Homelessness Foundation that is comparing different resources and hundreds of hotel rooms being opened up, temporary shelter spaces being opened up all over. It looked at 11 different cities across the country and we have 10 – we have 10 apartments. That’s what’s been open up in the whole province. The rest of the province hasn’t seen much of a trickle down from this low income stock. The sad thing is in Saskatoon, where we are leaps beyond what Regina is right now, because we have the Saskatoon Inter-Agency communication and support. Rural areas have almost no support to deal with this. When we look up north, with our outbreak up there, the resources just don’t exist to support people. So, when we look at what’s happening across the country, we’re failing immensely.

Can you talk a little bit about Saskatoon’s response both now and how it’s evolved?

Saskatoon seems to be in this really unique situation. Even when we look across the country where our city had what is this Safe Community Action Alliance that’s been formed for almost two years now or just over two years, I believe. That started as an initiative from our civic government saying ‘how can we work together as agencies and government officials to look at things that were affecting safety in the cities?’. The first two things that we began looking at were housing and crystal meth use. 

So, because we had this well-established system of inter-agency work already being done and we had a lot of agencies that had really put in a lot of footwork to get community responses specifically around crystal meth. We released a crystal meth report just after Christmas with recommendations to the government to better support people who were using crystal meth. So we had this great foundation. And so when we started, the week we saw our first positive in the province, the conversation started in Saskatoon. Within days we had a whole command structure set up with over 50 agencies now offering support, collaborative support. Our emergency hotel is now being staffed by the Health Authority, the Lighthouse. It’s all happening together. 

They’re not always easy conversations, but things are getting resolved. Barriers are being addressed really quickly. And so we have this fantastic channel for communication. I am the branch director for sheltering for all of the initiatives happening. So underneath that, we have our hotel strategy, our housing strategy, we have provincial sheltering calls that are happening. Those groups are meeting almost daily. So that communication piece is there. And what that has allowed us to do is offer the best support we possibly can right now with the resources that we have within days of our first positive. 

We had the service hubs open. Initially, we had two of them. We quickly went down to one because the second one wasn’t being utilized as well. At the While Buffalo Youth Lodge is where we’ve been and we’ve been there for five weeks now, six weeks. So, that’s being staffed by multiple agencies, and we’re able to offer income assistance, support and housing support out of there. We identified really quickly when we didn’t have access to people for all of our organizations to run. We potentially could be looking at manpower issues during those initial calls – asking ‘what if this hits really hard here and all of our staff get sick really quickly, you know, what do we look like?’. So we were able to pool those resources together really quickly. And that all started with that from that safe Community Action Alliance structure. So, you know, we’re very fortunate here to have the structure that we have, because things definitely wouldn’t be happening the way they were in Saskatoon if we didn’t have that structure. 

You talked a little bit about harm reduction as a framework that is part of the response. What is harm reduction and why is it so important in this time?

You know, I’m a strong believer that harm reduction should always be the approach to dealing with any situation. As a harm reduction agency, these things were quite natural for us to put in place. One of them being naloxone distribution. So we’re seeing we were already doing community distribution of naloxone and we’ve done that for the last couple of years here. We saw right away from other provinces that there were increases in overdoses happening. And so how could we get naloxone out, you know, quickly? So we’ve started looking at different ways of delivering different ways of training. 

We have harm reduction supplies available to people who are accessing our hotels. We have the MAP program (Manage Alcohol Program) running in the hotel for people that are needing it. So really looking at not just sticking them there, making sure they’re well supported while they’re there, that they have access to the things that they need, so that they’ll stay. If we need to keep somebody there for two weeks it’s not realistic to tell them if you came in using substances, you can’t use substances for the two weeks you’re here. Then you’re going to go back out and not access support. You’re going to leave the hotel and that’s going to put the community at risk. 

One of the simplest things, right away we identified people needed cigarettes. If they were going to stay in the hotel, they needed to smoke. So what that meant was we purchased a bunch of cigarettes and made sure that they had access to smoke. That one initiative stopped people from leaving the hotels almost completely. So just little things that that harm reduction is really practical support. 

It really goes down to the roots of basic needs. And where you’re at standing today, what do you need? You know, accessing those basic needs supports over time then leads to long term sustainable change. Whereas, our traditional support systems where we want really quick outcomes and return on outcomes often lead to people feeling alienated and pushed out of systems and so having no access to harm reduction supplies. Using supplies, access to food, access to shelter, are all really important parts of harm reduction. 

What gives you hope? 

You know, we have been in a really fortunate position in our agency, at least where our staff remain working and we’ve remained on the ground and we’ve been able to maintain capacity to offer support. That was really awesome because the initial conversations that Jason and I had when this started, we didn’t have a lot of answers and it was really hard to know if there was any hope in anything. And then when we saw things shutting down really quickly it became pretty scary, and now I think the things that I keep holding onto is when we have this collaborative approach. Sometimes it’s difficult and it’s not always not stressful, but it definitely makes it easier to do work. And so we’re seeing the hope there. 

Just being able to continue to offer support and know that we’re doing the best that we can with what we have. That keeps us going. I’d probably feel a lot more hopeful if there was a lot more support from our province to do the work that we’re doing, but right now, I’m hopeful because I get to continue to do this work with the people that I know also love doing this work. We are going to keep fighting and that as long as we’re fighting, there’s some sort of hope to be had. 

What action is needed right now to support the populations that you work with? 

You know, I think right now we need the voices of voters – if that makes. We have a lot of people on the ground saying that things aren’t what they should be and we’ve made a lot of noise in the media. We’ve had a lot of advocacy efforts go. But, I don’t think our general population – and we see this all the time – doesn’t always understand what is actually happening out in the community.

We need other people to start raising concern and advocating for this population as well. We need to make sure information goes out is accurately capturing what the impacts could be if we don’t support this population through this pandemic properly, and the impacts that it would have on our healthcare system and our justice system. Because, as I was saying before, the trickle effect is immense. 

I don’t think people understand how quickly we’ve seen outbreaks in shelters in bigger centers like Toronto. The impact that has on the healthcare system is huge. If those resources are being utilized by somebody who could avoid contracting COVID if they were given proper accommodations, it really means the difference between possibly you or I or our grandparents or our parents getting access to a ventilator or not. Our homeless populations are huge.  We have huge numbers of people who could all be getting very sick at the same time. That definitely goes against all public health recommendations to flatten the curve.