Hinshaw, Kenney defend mats-on-the-floor COVID-19 plan for homeless

EDMONTON — Provincial officials defended their plan to have homeless people sleep on mats one metre apart from each other, at Alberta’s daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, was asked why one metre distancing was now being allowed, when generally, the province recommends Albertans stay two metres apart in public to reduce the likelihood of coronavirus spread.

“It’s trying to weigh out the risks to those individuals who need to use those shelters, with respect to transmission, and the risks of having them potentially out in the cold,” Hinshaw responded, saying the exemption she approved doubled much-needed shelter capacity.

“The people who are lying next to each other are not just one metre apart from one head to another, but they’re actually further apart because of the diagonal distance between the two heads,” she added.

On Tuesday, Alberta’s Minister of Community and Social Services posted a photo of makeshift shelters, with mats on the floor less than two metres apart, in Red Deer and Lethbridge.

“They are doing great work to meet the additional space requirements due to COVID-19,” Rajan Sawhney tweeted.

The tweet attracted almost 500 responses, many of them critical.

“I honestly cannot believe you tweeted this as though it deserves a pat on the back. You’ve set up a Petri dish, and you’re proud of that,” political commentator Kathleen Smith responded on Twitter.

An NDP MLA also took issue with the photo Sawhney shared of Red Deer’s shelter.

“This breaks my heart. It’s nothing to be proud of. Folks experiencing homelessness deserve better,” Janis Irwin, MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood tweeted of the mats-on-the-floor arrangement.

The NDP demanded Sawhney explain why hotels weren’t being used to help house the homeless, like in some other Canadian cities.

Sawhney previously said hotels would need to be retrofitted with suicide prevention measures, and that would be too slow.

“Toronto has plans to lease 800 hotel rooms to support their homeless populations. Vancouver is securing hundreds of hotel rooms for homeless people to live in,” NDP MLA Marie Renaud said in a release.

“At the same time, the Minister is blocking Calgary from doing the same to prevent the spread of COVID and to protect our homeless community,” Renaud continued.

On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney supported Hinshaw’s plan, saying before loosening the distancing requirements, some people were being turned away at full shelters.

“The affect was sending hundreds of people out during very cold weather which could be worse for their health,” Kenney said, while defending the provinces assistance for the homeless.

“We provided $30 million in emergency support for the homeless shelters within days of the first COVID-19 case in Alberta,“ he said.

A temporary emergency shelter was open to the homeless at the Expo Centre in Edmonton Wednesday night.