Vulnerable populations camping in and around Belle Park in Kingston have been experiencing an increase in COVID-19 infection rates over the last few weeks, and while services have been provided for these individuals by the Integrated Care Hub (ICH) and other agencies, the rise of COVID-19 cases in these populations has been awash in substantial controversy.
Surrounded by a roughly 2.4 metre-high chain link fence on ICH property exists small isolation trailers provided by ICH for vulnerable populations with COVID-19 to self-isolate in. In a separate enclosure nearby, several tents, also situated behind a chain-link fence, that are also being used by the vulnerable individuals for self-isolation in order to await the results of COVID-19 testing, according to homeless individuals who frequent the area.
Troubling is the fact that the homeless individuals camping at Belle Park — outside of these fenced in areas — claim that the isolation in these trailers and tents are enforced by the City, and that those homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 experience prison-like conditions inside these fenced enclosures. (Editorial note: Although Kingston has an encampment bylaw prohibiting camping in public parks, the City of Kingston confirmed last week that by law has been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on vulnerable populations.)
“The police were called by [ICH] staff to take me out of quarantine, after six days of no heat, hydro, water, food, or shower – Because I let others know that positive cases were allowed to interact with others who were not infected. They are even using the same red latrine as those who are infected and in the trailers and with no way to wash your hands,” said one of those in the vulnerable populations camped at the ICH, Stan, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons.
“I was promised when I went into the trailer that hydro and water would be hooked up the first day. It was day six, and nothing to sleep on neither. Staff lied and the City lied – they made me take a quick test from [support staff at the ICH] and results were in under a minute that I was positive. I disagreed, but they made me go in the trailer anyway, and that’s when all this went south,” Stan said via text message.
In an email to Kingstonist, Executive Director of HARS Kingston, Gilles Charette, denied the allegations, stating that while tents and trailers have been erected on ICH property for those wishing to self-isolate or quarantine after COVID testing, this was not mandatory.
“No one who tests positive is forced to isolate at the ICH, whether in trailers or tents on the property. The trailers have been provided for those who were unable to access the hotel being used for isolation and would prefer to be there over a tent,” the email read.
Investigation on site did confirm that there are individuals camped deep into the wooded areas of Belle Park, who assert that they are, indeed COVID-19 positive, and are actively in hiding from staff at the ICH for fear of being forced to isolate in the trailers, which they’ve heard is “as bad as jail.”
On the flip side of the coin, there have been disturbing claims that some vulnerable population individuals have been attempting to pay or solicit others who are positive with COVID-19 to infect them, presumably as a means to acquire the shelter from the elements that these isolation trailers provide.
“They are desperate for shelter and it’s cold out now. They hear that the trailers now have hydro and heat, which can make all the difference when it comes to survival without a home. It’s heartbreaking. They have to weigh the risks of being on the streets with the risks of dying from a deadly disease, and for lots of them, the risk of freezing to death and being in pain in a tent on a Canadian Tire parking lot is like hell on earth compared to being sick in a heated trailer with a port-a-potty they can use,” shared Chrystal Wilson, local advocate for those experiencing homelessness and other forms of marginalization.
Gilles Charette also spoke about this in his email, stating that if these rumours were true, it would have harrowing implications.
“If this is the case, this would speak to just how much homelessness in our community has reached a crisis point, and how we, as a community, need to re-double our efforts on making affordable, supportive housing available to those who need it,” he said.
Since on-site investigation took place, black sheeting has been placed over many areas of the fencing surrounding the isolation trailers and tents on ICH property, with some sources expressing this was done to prevent any pictures of the conditions being taken and exposed to the public, while staff at ICH insist that it is as a means to protect the privacy of those living in the isolation area. ICH staff also said that they do not know how or when the black sheeting was placed, as well as who had placed it to begin with.
The COVID-19 outbreak that began among clients of the ICH and was declared on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, has reached 45 cases, according to data from Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health, with 10 of those cases currently active as of Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.
However, those working closely with the affected populations estimate the number of cases connected to this spread is far larger. Wilson said that, as of Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, she has found close to 50 cases that are not isolating at the ICH trailers or in Belle Park – and those are cases that may be outside of Public Health’s calculation of 45 cases connected to the outbreak. According to Wilson, there are currently 20 individuals in hotels/motels isolating, a service that is provided by the City of Kingston. This number has yet to be confirmed by KFL&A Public Health, as no response was received by time of publication.
But that service itself is not without issues. On Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021, one of those individuals was kicked out of the hotel he was isolating in. According to Wilson, the man was kicked out after he took his medication, but not in front of a nurse.
“It had nothing to do with his behaviour,” Wilson said.
After kicking him out (the man will remain unnamed for privacy reasons) – leaving both a homeless man and a COVID-19-positive case out in the community with nowhere to turn – the service provider in charge of the hotel and motel isolation program, Addictions and Mental Health Services of KFL&A (AMHS-KFLA), then threatened to call the police on the man, Wilson said.
From Wilson’s perspective, this only made matters far worse, as the man in question was formerly incarcerated – one of the reasons he refused to stay in the isolation trailers at the ICH in the first place. The last thing a person in his desperate position would need is to feel more vulnerable and targeted, she expressed.
The current situation is the result of different priorities battling for attention – COVID-19, winter and cold temperatures, homelessness, vulnerable populations with higher-than-average medical or mental health concerns – all at the same time, and with immediate need, Wilson explained from her perspective. Beyond the situations outlined above, there are or have been known cases of COVID-19 in at least three buildings in Kingston (since the beginning of the outbreak involving ICH clients) which offer subsidized units or that are run by Kingston Frontenac Housing Corporation, and which see a lot of transient traffic on a daily basis.
All the confusion, distrust, and finger-pointing occurring as Kingston deals with an already-boiling-over housing crisis leaves the whole community in a vulnerable position, Wilson explained with regard to the already-evident and declared community spread of COVID-19. But not as vulnerable as those who already were in the first place.
For now, the larger community can rest easy knowing the man positive for COVID-19 who was dismissed from isolation services is currently with shelter. Unable to deal with the idea of leaving him with no options, Wilson, along with a few of her associates and fellow advocates, are footing the bill for his current hotel room. But, like many of those providing volunteer services for those most in need in the Kingston community, they are spread thin.
“We can only sustain this for a few days,” Wilson said.
“And who can tell me: Then what?”
With files from Tori Stafford.