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

Policies and Procedures Keeping Staff and Clients Safe

At Boyle Street Community Services, we have been working hard to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 through forward-thinking and thoughtful protocols. Protecting staff and the clients we serve has been at the forefront of our decision-making since the onset of COVID-19. Ian Mathieson, Director of Operations and Co-Lead on our COVID-19 Response Committee, provided us with an in-depth look into Boyle Street’s COVID-19 response. 

A pandemic can take even the most forward-thinking organization by surprise; however, our organization’s response was ahead of the curve. 

“The key to the success of our initial response was that our Executive Director was already ahead of the curve,” explains Mathieson. “He created a COVID-19 Response Committee, led by Marliss Taylor and me, the week of March 11, 2020. That was the very beginning of the lockdown. Businesses and institutions began shutting down across North America. During this time, we had already begun developing a systematic response to the pandemic.” 

Fortunately, our organizational response was implemented early, as we considered COVID-19 a serious concern from the beginning. Marliss Taylor is the Director of Health Services for Boyle Street and the Co-Lead on our COVID-19 Response Committee. Her previous experience developing a pandemic response when H1N1 broke out in 2009 and stockpiling masks for staff use helped Boyle Street respond to the pandemic before many other organizations had even begun preparing.  

Pictured: Ian Mathieson (L) and Marliss Taylor (R).

“Because Boyle Street provides an essential service to the individuals we serve, we default to remain open, even during a crisis,” explains Mathieson. “We are risk-tolerant and have weathered quite a few storms in the past. COVID-19 is just another crisis, and we will weather this storm just like how we have weathered many others.” 

Boyle Street is doing all we can to keep clients and staff stay safe during the pandemic. As an essential service, Boyle Street knew that to provide effective services, the priority should be to create a safe environment for our clients and staff as soon as possible. 

“One of our biggest challenges that we have is reminding ourselves that we provide an essential service to the people we work with,” states Mathieson. “Just because we may be scared, anxious and stressed about the virus, and that there is a global outbreak, doesn’t mean we can close our doors.” 

Staying open is easier said than done. Many Boyle Street staff are frontline workers, and we are asking them to take on a certain level of risk in order to continue to provide essential services to the community we serve. We can mitigate risk as much as possible by giving our staff proper PPE, providing handwashing stations and temperature checks at the front door of our Community Centre and Four Directions Bank. Another way we mitigate risk is by asking clients to wear masks and answer thorough screening questions through our intake process right as they enter the building. These multiple measures help alleviate some of the risks that we are asking our staff to take. 

Pictured: Precautions being taken around our Community Centre.

Because of the compassionate nature of the work we do, staff are fully invested while providing our 40+ programs and services to our clients.  

“Our staff care so much, and they just want to provide the best service to clients that they can. They wouldn’t be working here if they didn’t,” explains Mathieson. “We have, however, had to ensure that our staff are incorporating COVID precautions to their work, to ensure safety for everyone. It’s a hard balance to strike between compassion and overall public safety.” 

When asked if Boyle Street is doing enough to protect clients and staff from getting COVID, Mathieson had this to say: 

“The sad reality of the work we do is that it is never going to be enough,” states Mathieson. “We could work 24/7, and what we are doing would still not be enough to protect our community from COVID or anything they are inflicted with. On the bright side, we have the protocols and supports in place to keep our staff and clients safe during the pandemic.” 

In short, Boyle Street is doing the best we can with the resources we have.  

A barrier that Boyle Street faces during this pandemic is the limited physical space we have for clients to access services. Our Health Inspector allows 45 individuals in the Community Centre at one time to comply with physical distancing guidelines. Boyle Street also experienced a large flood in the basement of both the Community Centre and the Four Directions Financial bank this summer, further limiting space where clients can access services and staff can do their work.  

Space limitations have led to clients congregating outside the building, which is problematic. In order to mitigate some of the risks associated with congregating, our Community Centre has installed picnic tables and benches and we have been encouraging individuals to spread out.  

Pictured: Community member Robert showing off his flamingo shirt while wearing a mask inside our Centre.

Our clients are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the barriers that they face in protecting themselves from the virus.

“Our community is in a struggle for survival daily. Crisis is their bottom line – Now throw in a global pandemic,” Mathieson illustrates. “They have to stay 6 ft apart and wash their hands, but where? Wear a clean mask, but how? Sometimes the community we serve has more immediate concerns that need to be addressed day-to-day that can take precedence over prioritizing COVID precautions. This is a huge challenge when it comes to keeping people safe from the virus.” 

Another important thing to remember is that colder weather is coming. While clients may feel safer sleeping rough outside than in shelters and congregating outside of Boyle Street while the fall weather is still tolerable, there’s no denying that winter is on its way.


“By the time winter rolls around in a few short weeks, there is not going to be herd immunity, a vaccine or a reasonable treatment for COVID-19,” explains Mathieson. “We need a space where people can be safe and warm. Finding that space is the most important thing that we must figure out at this time. If you don’t have a place to do that, how can we keep people safe?” 

Winter is going to be a huge problem for Boyle Street and other inner-city organizations who must meet COVID-19 safety precautions, including physical distancing requirements. This is why the advocacy work that we engage in is so fundamental in helping to keep our clients safe.


“At a systemic level, one of the strongest things we can do to protect our community is the advocacy work... to raise awareness of the risks that our clients constantly face,” explains Mathieson. “The best way to protect our community is to advocate on their behalf to the decision-makers and ask then to put policies in place that will keep our clients safe.” 

Advocating our community’s needs to the City and the province becomes even more serious during a growing pandemic. Currently, the highest priority is finding a safe space where clients can follow COVID precautions while still accessing services as the weather gets colder.  

When there is an outbreak of COVID-19 among clients, Mathieson says that we already know what to do, thanks to the protocols in place. 

“If COVID is known to be spreading in the inner-city community, the Isolation Shelter will be scaled up as needed,” explains Mathieson. “We will work with our partners to provide services and health care to clients who are sick. The systems we put in place will get people to get the proper care they need.” 

Boyle Street’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to date has been guided by the recommended guidelines set out by public health officials and our Health Inspector. It’s our staff and leadership who have not only been following the guidelines but have also been putting their hearts and souls into serving our community while doing so. We are confident that our resilient staff are the ones who are going to see us through the pandemic until the end, while continually uplifting our city’s most vulnerable.  


*Please note that this blog post was originally written on September 14, 2020.

"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.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Sep 20, 2021

Thanks for postiing this

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