For the first time in nearly 20 months, volunteers at Hope Cottage will resume serving sit-down meals to the city’s most vulnerable people today. But how long that will last is anybody’s guess and a matter of ongoing discussion.
Prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, the soup kitchen on Brunswick Street served between 150 and 200 meals a day, Monday through Friday.
Started by a Catholic priest 50 years ago, Hope Cottage has been an institution in the north end of Halifax, a lifeline for people who are homeless or otherwise down on their luck. Because people congregated inside to eat breakfast and supper, Public Health rules treated Hope Cottage as if it were a restaurant.
For the past year and a half, staff and volunteers at Hope Cottage have been handing out sandwiches or meals once a day from the front door to people lined up on the sidewalk. About 10 days ago, a notice was posted on the door informing clients that on November 1 (today) it would re-open to provide two hot meals each day.
Only those who could show proof they had received two vaccinations for COVID would be admitted: “No exceptions” read the sign.
“We are familiar with a lot of the people who come here,” Terry Power, the manager of Hope Cottage told the Halifax Examiner. “Everyone will get the same meal whether at the door or inside. We’ve been talking with them and everyone is OK with what we are doing.”
Power’s statement indicates a change in thinking. An earlier sign (since removed) had said those who couldn’t come in because of their vaccination status would be handed sandwiches at the door.
Asked if Hope Cottage was trying to protect its volunteers or its clients, Power replied that, “we are trying to protect everybody as best we can.” He said after talking with clients and volunteers, sandwiches are no longer on the menu and everyone will get the same meal.
The reopening notice posted on Hope Cottage’s door had been noticed by someone with a small group called the Nova Scotia Coalition for Justice and Freedom. Member Bill McMullin asserts that the coalition is not an antivaxxer group but a defender of civil liberties and an advocate for social justice.
“My position (and that of the NS Coalition for Justice and Freedom) is that organizations serving the homeless and other vulnerable populations should be exempt [from the Public Health requirement to show proof of vaccination when eating indoors],” said McMullin.
McMullin himself has not been vaccinated. His personal website describes him as a serial entrepreneur. With a business partner, he successfully launched the online service TrueCheck, which facilitates background checks for clients, and the real estate portal Viewpoint.ca.
McMullin pointed out that food courts in shopping malls are exempt from the Health Protection Order requiring proof of vaccination. “So if I was a homeless person and I had money, I could buy food from a shopping mall, but I couldn’t enter Hope Cottage to get a free meal unless I could prove I was double vaxxed. Getting vaccinated isn’t a priority for most of the homeless and hungry,” continued McMullin. “Many don’t have smartphones, printers or even photo ID.”
(The Examiner notes people in food courts have the option of remaining socially distanced while those eating together inside Hope Cottage might not.)
The manager of Hope Cottage said most of the people receiving sandwiches during the pandemic are known to staff and most have been vaccinated. The team from Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH) has helped staff from mobile vaccination clinics visit shelters and parks to encourage people to get their shots.
Terry Power disputed McMullin’s contention that a lot of regulars wouldn’t be able to enter because they don’t have a photo ID. It’s true for some people, acknowledged Power, but he said the majority of Hope Cottage clients do carry a provincial ID that includes their photo.
To obtain a provincial ID from Access Nova Scotia, a person needs a stub from an Income Assistance cheque as well as two more documents (such as a health card and birth certificate). The card costs $17.70 plus tax.
A staff person at the Metro Turning Point shelter for homeless men told the Examiner most of its clients have a provincial ID. Homeless shelters and food banks do not require clients to show proof of vaccination; these services are exempt under Nova Scotia’s Health Protection Order.
British Columbia and Ontario go a step further by also exempting soup kitchens. That was one of the arguments the NS Coalition for Justice and Freedom enlisted during an email campaign last week urging Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang to change the rules here.
On Friday, under pressure from the Coalition, Public Health notified Community Services that as of November 1, organizations that provide meals to vulnerable people would no longer require proof of vaccination under the Health Protection guidelines.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for this story. In fact, manager Terry Power says the decision by Public Health means Hope Cottage must now have plenty more discussion about what happens next.
“We have already lost regular volunteers during the pandemic,” Power said. “If we can’t attract volunteers, we will have to close. And some volunteers have already told us they won’t come back unless everyone — volunteers and clients — can provide the paperwork to prove they are double-vaccinated.”
Power said Hope Cottage never asked Strang for an exemption to the “proof of vaccination” rule.
“Nothing that happens here is news to the people who come here every day,” said Power. “Nobody is complaining. But people who don’t come here or don’t understand what we do are the ones who are complaining.”
Prior to the eleventh-hour change, Hope Cottage could and did say it was bound by the rules set by Public Health. Now Public Health has punted the decision to the charity to decide who can come in and who gets a meal at the door. Terry Power insists hungry people are OK with that.
McMullin sees it differently. “With winter approaching, this policy has safety implications, leaving impoverished unvaccinated individuals to cold food eaten outdoors,” wrote McMullin in an email. “Finally, there is the emotional harm, in the form of humiliation when the unvaccinated arrive expecting to go inside for a hot meal with their friends only to be rejected at the door.”
Presumably volunteers at Hope Cottage who are essential to keep the service going during the coldest months and who prepare and serve most of the food will have some say in the matter. Sadly, the COVID-19 virus continues to be a divisive force at a time when the most vulnerable citizens in the city still need lots of support.
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