WINDSOR, ONT. -- A temporary emergency shelter for people who are homeless opened Thursday at the Windsor International Aquatic and Training Centre despite some criticism from the community.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit issued an order on Feb. 19 to the Downtown Mission restricting access to new clients, city staff, support agency workers due to a COVID-19 outbreak. On Wednesday WECHU said there were 81 cases of the virus linked to the Mission and 34 cases connected to the Salvation Army.

Within five days of the order, a team of carpenters transformed the aquatic centre at 401 Pitt Street West into a temporary shelter.

Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens issued a statement Thursday, after receiving some negative feedback about the decision.

“I’ve been both surprised and disappointed with some correspondence my colleagues and I have received related to this decision,” said Dilkens. “I understand the ease with which one can take to electronic means to criticize municipal decisions, but some of the language used is simply unbecoming of my fellow Windsorites. In our position, City Council and I do not have the luxury of prioritizing aqua-fit, diving lessons, and lap swimming over the needs of Windsorites who have nowhere else to turn in winter months. Frankly, I hope you would expect nothing less from us.”

The city said the purpose of the temporary emergency shelter is threefold:

-To provide individuals experiencing homelessness with a safe, well-controlled place to stay

-To provide the Mission an opportunity to focus on their operations and comply with the conditions of the health unit’s order so it may be lifted and they can safely and effectively resume operations

-To provide proper and thorough training in shelter supports and infection prevention and control to Mission staff who will be working on site at TESAC.

Strict infection prevention and control measures have been implemented, and the physical location has been altered to ensure strict adherence to public health guidelines to prevent COVID-19. Activities and meals are being provided to guests, and specific areas have been designated for meals and sleeping. The facility will have a capacity of 75 people.

“This has been an incredible undertaking by all involved, and I want to congratulate everyone on the work done,” said Dilkens. “This site will help safeguard a vulnerable population in our community until the Downtown Mission can get approval from the health unit to resume running in four weeks’ time.”

Jelena Payne, commissioner of Community Development and health Services said an unprecedented amount of work went into opening a fully operational emergency shelter in a matter of days.

“Not only does this facility provide a safe environment for guests, it serves as a training opportunity as well,” said Payne.

“Staff worked around the clock to make this happen so guests of the Mission have a safe place to go,” she added. “Now that the site is open, City staff will turn the day-to-day operations over to the coalition. City staff will continue to operate the two isolation and recovery centres for individuals experiencing homelessness who need to isolate due to COVID.”

The temporary emergency shelter at the aquatic centre will be operated by the community coalition until March 29, 2021. It is expected that, at that time, the facility will be decommissioned and returned to the City of Windsor, and residents of the Downtown Mission will return to the Mission.