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Poverty, Homelessness and COVID-19: Boyle Street Community Services' Response to the Global Pandemic

Health and Safety Precautions

Ever since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, Boyle Street Community Services has been providing care and prioritizing the health and safety of community members and staff. Marliss Taylor is a Registered Nurse and the Director of Health Services for Boyle Street and Co-Lead on our COVID-19 Response Committee. She also runs the Streetworks program. Taylor provided insight into how we have and continue to work hard to keep Edmonton’s most vulnerable as safe as possible during this outbreak of novel coronavirus.  

As an essential service, Boyle Street Community Services kept our doors open when the pandemic hit. Boyle Street was set up for success in one regard: we had a stockpile of 6,000 masks, ready for staff to use in the Community Centre at the onset of the virus. These supplies were originally purchased for what could have been a catastrophic global pandemic when H1N1 broke out in 2009. They were stored in a staff’s barn on a farm for a decade! Our staff were able to put the masks to good use once COVID-19 precautions recommended their usage. Since then, all 6,000 masks have been used while staff continued to provide our 40+ programs and services across our nine locations.

Since the initial declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, Boyle Street has been working hard on many fronts to keep staff and community members safe. Marliss Taylor explains how our organization is approaching this. 

“We are staying in tune with what the Chief Medical Officer is saying, are working with other health providers like the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, and we are following the recommendations of our health inspector,” explains Taylor. “Most importantly, we are communicating the science. During times of stress, there can be a lot of misinformation that goes around, but we communicate the science to our community members and staff to help ease confusion.” 

Unfortunately, putting that science into practice continues to be a challenge our community members are facing.

“We can say a million times to people 'wash your hands,' but when you’re outside all day and don’t have access to soap and water, that advice just isn’t realistic,” explains Taylor.  

Asking clients to wear a mask safely is also challenging. It’s difficult for community members to keep a reusable mask clean while living rough because of limited access to laundry facilities. If community members are able to obtain a disposable mask, it’s only a temporary, short-term solution, as it may be a while before a community member can locate another clean, disposable mask. 

With the City of Edmonton’s mandatory face-covering bylaw, which came into effect on August 1st, compliance is especially challenging for members of our community, as they are unable to seek shelter inside of a city-owned building without a mask. With colder weather on the way, this is going to become even more of a detriment to our community’s safety. 

Another challenge Taylor noted during the pandemic was that, with restrictions on the number of community members able to access services inside our Community Centre at the height of the pandemic, many individuals could not access the daily news in the same way they usually would – either communicated verbally from staff or on our Drop-In Centre’s television.  

“Community members were not accessing the Drop-In in the same way they used to,” describes Taylor. “This means they had less access to the news. They didn’t have the same privileges as the rest of the world in keeping themselves informed on COVID-19.” 

Boyle Street Community Services now collaborates with Alberta Health Services to provide asymptomatic testing blitzes in front of our downtown Community Centre. These blitzes give community members a chance to ask our nursing staff questions about staying safe during the pandemic. Because of our organizational focus on relationship-building, community members often feel the most comfortable consulting with our healthcare staff about their medical needs and questions, rather than an outside source.  Therefore, community members are getting answers from a trustworthy source, and are receiving information that is rooted in science and the latest news from the Chief Medical Officer.  

When asked if Boyle Street is doing enough to keep community members and staff safe during COVID-19, Taylor responded:  

“Based on the information we have, with the resources we have, with the physical space we have, yes. One of the biggest challenges is accessing proper PPE.” 

In addition to keeping our staff and community members safe during the pandemic, we have also been grappling with the Overdose Crisis. Streetworks, a Boyle Street program, has been handing out harm reduction supplies to community members at the entrance to the building in an attempt to keep people safer and healthier while complying with physical distancing regulations. This also means ensuring that people have access to naloxone kits that community members can use if they come across a person experiencing an overdose. The Streetworks’ nurses also respond to a multitude of overdoses that occur in and around the building, excluding in our supervised consumption site. The StreetWorks van is parked outside of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre five days a week to hand out harm reduction supplies, and also provides supplies and information to 25 satellite sites. 

According to research, people who are vulnerable and face multiple systemic barriers are those who are hit the hardest by the pandemic. This often includes people of Indigenous descent, new Canadians, and people for whom discrimination is a daily experience.

“In short, the purpose of Boyle Street is to get people to a place where they are less vulnerable,” states Taylor. “The programs and services that Boyle Street has been offering for decades to empower our community members and to get them to a place where they are less vulnerable are still important and even more relevant during COVID-19.” 

Finally, when asked what is going to happen if or when there is an outbreak of COVID-19 among community members, Taylor provided her insight:

“Sick community members will safely get to the new Edmonton Isolation Facility (EIF), and if there is a large outbreak, plans are in place to accommodate those who are ill. Boyle Street is a partner in the EIF and manages the support workers on that site” explains Taylor. “The number of people at the Community Centre might change according to the severity of the outbreak as well. People are aware that things could become very difficult if there an outbreak of COVID-19 amongst community members. Plans have been made and change as new information appears, and we just hope that we have thought of as much as we can around this. Hopefully, we can move through it together.” 

For now, Taylor explains that Boyle Street is going to watch the information and science coming from the Chief Medical Officer closely, and devise any new plans as necessary. Our organization is going to continue to be vigilant about the ever-changing environment with COVID-19, and we will continue to inform staff and community members of any updates and new information as it becomes available.  

As an organization, Boyle Street Community Services knows that this isn’t going to be easy, but we will continue to build and provide community supports for vulnerable populations who face barriers to inclusion, even amidst a global pandemic.


"Poverty, Homelessness and COVID-19: Boyle Street Community Services' Response to the Global Pandemic" is a five-part blog series highlighting Boyle Street Community Services' response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including how we're providing services, how we're protecting ourselves and others, and how we're working hard to keep our community safe, and well-served.

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