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Surge homeless shelter run by Good Shepherd

“It was the first time I’ve slept through the night in years,”

Stories from men staying at FirstOntario Centre, The “surge” homeless shelter run by Good Shepherd during COVID-19


Jimmy & John John are twin brothers who have lived on the streets on and off for 21 years. John John says he’s the pessimist, while his brother is the optimist.

“We balance each other out. We’re a good team,” says John John.

Jimmy is battling bone and skin cancer and needs a new kidney. He goes for regular chemo treatments, dialysis and radiation. John John is claustrophobic so they stay away from shelters where men are often cramped side by side in cots. They’ve experienced challenges with landlords in the past and have a hard time keeping an apartment.

“Our kids want to come stay with us when we have a place but that causes trouble with landlords,” says Jimmy. “We’ve got 10 kids between us and we don’t want to kick them out if we’ve got a roof over our heads.”

When the outbreak became widespread throughout the city, the two became nervous. Once the prospect of a safe, warm and open space at FirstOntario Centre became an option, they wanted to see it for themselves.

“The first night here was the best sleep of my life,” says John John. “It was the first time I’ve slept through the night in years.”

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Good Shepherd, along with the City of Hamilton and Core Entertainment, worked together to prepare the pandemic “surge” shelter over Easter weekend. Instead of the usual emergency cot that most men would sleep on in shelter, Good Shepherd was able to source more comfortable beds off Kijiji. The mattresses came from a supplier that normally serves universities and colleges. The first night housed approximately 20 men who were relocated from existing men’s shelters.

“It’s working really well here. Because of how much space there is, the clients can really practise social distancing and they seem to be taking it seriously,” says Stephanie, a nurse who runs a temporary walk-in clinic at the shelter for anyone who needs medical attention.

The shelter workers are candid about the stress and fear associated with working on the front lines during COVID-19 but they all share the same strength of mind that they city’s most vulnerable people shouldn’t be left out in the cold.

“It was critical that we relocate these men out of the shelters and into a safe space to maintain that physical distancing,” says Stephanie. “Everyone deserves to have a safe place to ride out this storm.”

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Hudson plays his guitar and writes songs to pass the time. He connected with Chris, Good Shepherd’s Musical Therapist who is working at the shelter.

“Maybe I can play for the other men here and help them get through the day a little easier,” says Hudson.

He became homeless last year when he had to leave his apartment that was infested with cockroaches and bed bugs.

“I was supposed to be starting work as a roofer,” he says, “I only worked a few days before the company had to shut down because of the pandemic.”

He’s thankful to have a bed to sleep in and meals to eat but he’s worried about his mother whose health is deteriorating. He’s been looking at apartments but he isn’t confident that anyone will rent to him since he has no idea when he’ll be back to work.

“The virus threw a wrench in my plans, I was supposed to work, save up a little money and get back into my own place. Now I’m stuck here in limbo,” he says.

Gary has been homeless for almost four years and typically chooses the streets over shelters.

“My reputation follows me no matter where I move and it’s hard to get a fresh start,” he says. Gary is HIV positive and sees a lot of similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and the AIDS epidemic. He said it’s hard to shake the stigma of having HIV but he tries to stay positive and learn from his hardships.

“I came here to see what this place is all about and I’m impressed by the nice staff and what they have set up here,” says Gary.

© 2020 Good Shepherd Centers