City redeploys hundreds of employees to shelter system during COVID-19 emergency
April 27, 2020
Mathieu Maslard went from desk job to front line in a matter of days as part of the city’s response to COVID-19.
Assigned to one of the city’s temporary shelter sites, he worked directly with clients and helping with setup for eight hours a day for 17 days straight.
When Maslard first heard they were having a hard time filling shifts as new shelter spaces were being opened -- a city plan to increase physical distancing -- he volunteered to help.
“I don’t regret (it) and I think it was the right thing to do, to raise my hand and go do that,” he said.
Maslard is one of up to 700 employees the city expects to redeploy to the shelter system during the pandemic in an unprecedented effort to expand the space for thousands of people in an already vulnerable population as outbreaks continue.
As of Friday, there were 14 shelters, respites or drop-ins that had outbreaks, with at least 135 people testing positive, according to Toronto Public Health.
Working in the shelter was a long way from Maslard’s normal role as a manager in the corporate real estate management division where he works on strategic planning and transformation projects -- what he calls “very much a desk job.”
He had previously been trained to work in shelters in the event of a labour disruption and was redeployed before the city had a formal crash course in place during the emergency.
He worked to set up the site with experienced staff from the city’s shelter, support and housing administration (SSHA), arranging cots, deciding on the best configuration to ensure two metres of distance for sleeping -- and other needs like food and showers.
On his first day there were 10 clients and the temporary site quickly filled to capacity of 40, with clients rotating through as beds became available, he said.
Maslard said he was anxious about his new role at first -- “and then you don’t really have time to think about it.”
Maslard was recalled to help with a COVID-19 recovery project for the city, but said he would gladly work an emergency shift again.
“Realizing how much work -- and how many people care in the system to make it work -- was completely eye opening for me.”
Mary-Anne Bédard, who heads SSHA, said they’ve already redeployed 300 staff from outside the division to help with the expansion. She said they’re grateful to staff who have stepped up.
“We have had such amazing response from the corporation,” she said. “Most of these people are not used to working nights and weekends. We are a 24-7 operation. So lots of people having to readjust their own family lives in order to do this kind of work at a particularly scary time.”
She said by the end of the month they plan to open 11 community centres and other city facilities, as well as 11 hotels to create 2,000 additional spaces and help isolate those tested for or suspected of having COVID-19 -- an unprecedented effort in just a matter of weeks. It will require some 600 to 700 staff to be redeployed
At the same time, front-line advocates have criticized the city for not moving fast enough, with shelters that have long been overcrowded and people at risk of virus spread. A coalition of groups has now taken legal action against the city over shelter standards, claiming they infringe Charter rights.
Bédard said staffing is just one of the challenges to get safe sites up and running, with 770 people in hotels now, 492 in community spaces and 73 housed.
“I think we’re making really good progress,” she said.
Omo Akintan, the city’s chief people officer, said they started the search for staff to redeploy with those who were already trained for the labour disruption, then moved to those in the employment and social services division who previously worked in shelters.
“Initially we just needed people,” she said.
After that they turned to employees who staff recreation programs that have been cancelled and more broadly in the organization for those who had listed shelters as a first choice on a survey sent to staff. Akintan said those who volunteer are most likely to be successful in their new role.
“We’re looking at the people who have put up their hands.”
Earlier, the Star reported some staff were asked to redeploy to essential jobs during the pandemic or take unpaid leave. It’s not clear if or how many staff have chosen leave over redeployment. Everyone the Star spoke to for this story volunteered.
For those who have never worked in shelters, staff like Hussain Haider Ali, manager of strategic management services, have been working on training modules to get them up to speed on de-escalation tactics, who to administer the life-saving drug naloxone if someone is overdosing and shelter standards.
Those materials get sent to redeployed staff 48 hours before their first shift, he said, and include information about the reasons for homelessness and other sensitivity training.
“We just want to ensure the staff, redeployed staff, are set up for success in the best way possible,” he said.
A month ago, Beck McNeil, a senior consultant in corporate learning who is currently leading the learning team during the pandemic, said in 48 hours they had to turn around a more than hour-long e-learning course for staff, including narrated audio to guide staff through the training.
“Rarely are we forced to so quickly fill in a lot of gaps in a collaboration,” McNeil said, while also praising his colleagues who put their hands up to work in the shelter.
He noted that unlike a private corporation, the city has a responsibility to its clients, including vulnerable populations.
“You don’t get to just close your doors.”
The team has been seeking feedback to modify and improve the training.
Haider Ali and McNeil said some people are anxious, but they’ve received a lot of good feedback.
“They’re kind of really thankful for the experience,” Haider Ali said. “I think that they’ll really keep it in mind when they go back to their base positions as well.”
For some, volunteering to work in shelters has meant doing double duty.
Fatima Mohammad, an HR consultant with employee and labour relations who has worked at the city for three years, has continued to do her regular job Monday to Friday while working at a temporary site in a recreation centre on the weekends.
“I just wanted to contribute in any way I could,” she said.
At the start of each shift she said they meet with the site lead to get updated about the previous shift and any new information they need to know. She then helps tackle that day’s tasks -- serving meals, helping clients to launder items, inspecting cot areas, assisting with any incidents and preparing for new clients.
She said the best part has been meeting clients, connecting with them and hearing their stories and lived experiences as well as an appreciation for the work her colleagues in the shelter division do.
“I think that was eye-opening for me and just kind of understanding the issues that they face and the ways in which the city does provide support.”
Mohammad has been redeployed to another team during the week, but said she wants her work at the shelter to carry on.
“I hope I can continue volunteering.”