Launceston homeless shelter's three-day shutdown over COVID case left some with no options

Susann Rigg, 50, had been staying in Safe Space in Launceston since December 24, but had nowhere to go when it suddenly shut on Saturday due to a positive COVID case among staff.
Susann Rigg, 50, had been staying in Safe Space in Launceston since December 24, but had nowhere to go when it suddenly shut on Saturday due to a positive COVID case among staff.

One of Launceston's only homeless shelters was shut for three days after a staff member who worked an eight-hour shift tested positive for COVID-19, leaving some in desperate need of a place to stay.

City Mission's Safe Space suddenly shut on Saturday after it was made aware that a worker was positive with COVID during a shift last Wednesday, resulting in 15 homeless people being relocated to a quarantine hotel for testing.

The shelter - the only of its type in Launceston that accepts both men and women, subject to availability - shut its doors from Saturday until Tuesday afternoon, and is open again.

City Mission acting chief executive officer Brian Beswick said anyone who attempted to access the space during the three days was referred to Housing Connect.

"But there's not a lot of options," he said.

Mr Beswick said they would normally reopen the next day if a COVID case is detected and cleaning can occur, but last week's case came at a bad time.

"It's just unfortunate timing with the New Year's long weekend that we couldn't keep the service going," he said.

The COVID-positive staff member had only reported mild symptoms. Two other staff were considered close contacts and were also quarantining.

There have been no further positive cases reported among staff or clients.

A desperate search for somewhere to stay

Susann Rigg, 50, was staying at Safe Space with her dog Gypsy when another client told her they all had to leave. She was unable to move to the quarantine hotel because of its no-pets policy, and could not find anyone to care for her dog.

It left her - and another man with a dog - with nowhere to go.

Ms Rigg said she has emphysema and suffers chronic pain from a range of medical conditions, including a bulging disc, meaning she could not sleep in her car. She was booked in for her second vaccination on Wednesday, which she has had to postpone.

"What are you supposed to do when you're not allowed to go anywhere? You're in quarantine on the street, basically," she said.

"I had to contact a friend, but I had flu-like symptoms and I was worried he'd be put at risk because I was a close contact. He felt terrible for me and said I could come to his place though, I stayed in a spare room which put him at jeopardy.

"That was my only option."

Ms Rigg was concerned that the ongoing spread of COVID in the community would create further problems for Tasmania's homeless population.

Ms Rigg was concerned that the ongoing spread of COVID in the community would create further problems for Tasmania's homeless population.

Ms Rigg had been staying at Safe Space since December 24 while waiting for a space at a women's shelter. She has been on the Housing Connect priority waiting list for 11 months, living in a relative's garage and then a caravan park until recently.

She said she had to borrow money for food after Safe Space shut, having been reliant on meals at City Mission and facing large medical costs.

She was booked in for a COVID test on Tuesday afternoon, but was still unsure about when she would be able to return to Safe Space.

"If it's negative, I still have to wait until tomorrow," Ms Rigg said.

"I can't stay here longer, this is only temporary. All this stress is terrible."

'Tassie just isn't equipped for this'

Tasmania recorded 702 COVID cases in the 24 hours to Tuesday morning with 2244 active cases, but a high positive result percentage has caused concern about undetected cases in the community.

There are also 4464 applications on the housing register, with an average wait of 61.9 weeks to be housed.

Ms Rigg said she was concerned that similar situations would keep occurring.

"Tassie just isn't equipped for this," she said.

"City Mission's workers are lovely and they do amazing things. They had to protect their workers because, at the same time, we didn't know how much contact they had with the person who was positive."

City Mission has a COVID plan to minimise disruptions, but an increased number of staff on leave had meant it was unable to keep Safe Space open after the positive case was detected.

Mr Beswick said they were confident this would be a one-off occurrence.

"It won't normally be as long. The closure could have been shorter if not for the public holiday," he said.

"Reopening the next day would have been the normal hope."

This story What happens when COVID shuts a homeless shelter? first appeared on The Examiner.