How do you self-isolate when you don't have a home? Montreal shelters plead for help

While many Montrealers wait out the pandemic at home, telecommuting and practising social distancing, staff at homeless shelters go into work every day to care for some of the city's most vulnerable people.

Homeless advocates ask for extra resources, clear protocols for clients with coronavirus symptoms

Montreal shelter managers are concerned about what will happen to their clients if staff get sick, and the shelters can no longer stay open. (Charles Contant/CBC)

While many Montrealers wait out the coronavirus pandemic at home, telecommuting and practising social distancing, staff at homeless shelters go into work every day to care for some of the city's most vulnerable people.

Scrambling to protect themselves and the clientele they serve, they're asking for more support from all levels of government. 

"If you don't have a home, you cannot socially isolate," said Heather Johnston, executive director of Projets autochtones du Québec (PAQ). 

Johnston said PAQ is screening clients at its door, but that's not easy. She estimated on any given night, between 30 and 50 percent of people who come to the shelter have a cough. 

"So many [members] of our community have complex health issues — chronic health issues," she said. "I worry about how hard this virus is going to affect this community if it starts to spread here."

If you don't have a home, you cannot socially isolate.- Heather Johnston, Executive director of Projects autochtones du Québec

As a prevention measure, PAQ has reduced the number of people it's housing at night. Until the city announces measures for opening extra facilities, Johnston said that means more people are sleeping outside or in public spaces. 

She's one of several Montreal homeless advocates who say they need more resources, as well as more clear direction from governments on how to serve their clientele in the era of COVID-19.

"If I have a case in my shelter, what do I need to do? Do I need to shut down, or is there a cleaning procedure we need to do? Do we send staff to get tested?"

Homeless advocates have been pooling resources, sharing much-needed bottles of hand sanitizer, while they wait for more support from the city and the province. (CBC Archives)

Shelters pool resources while awaiting more help

While they wait for more concrete measures and funding, shelters in the Montreal area have been working together to pool their resources and come up with coping strategies.

Resilience Montreal, a day centre at Cabot Square, ran out of hand sanitizer last week. It asked the city and the general public for donations, but came up empty-handed. 

"All our staff were running out to the store, looking for the hand sanitizer.... We even tried to get isopropyl alcohol to make our own — that's sold out," said the centre's co-manager, Nakuset.

Ultimately, it was Johnston's shelter that came to the rescue with a few spare bottles.

Like other advocates, Nakuset's main fear is what would happen to clients if any of the shelters have to close. 

"What happens if our staff get sick? We need a back up," she said. 

The density of the population of a shelter means that it's a crucible for the rapid propagation of the coronavirus.- Matthew Pearce, Old Brewery Mission CEO

Nakuset said she has asked the city if it can spare some employees, if it should come to that. For now, staff who feel they can work are coming in, she said, but she doesn't want to put anyone in danger.

Matthew Pearce, CEO of Montreal's Old Brewery Mission, shares those concerns. 

"We have staff that are very worried, and some have resigned. Some are staying home. Some have families to care for. Some have compromised health issues ... so we have to replace those people," Pearce said. 

He's hoping the provincial government can allocate some cleaning and security staff to shelters.

Pearce said he's also in talks with the province to find designated locations where people who are homeless could be isolated if they become infected with COVID-19.

"We're trying to look ahead at what's coming next week and the week after without really knowing what that's going to be." 

While there are no known cases of coronavirus at the Old Brewery Mission, Pearce said they need to be prepared.

"The density of the population of a shelter means that it's a crucible for the rapid propagation of the coronavirus, should it ever get inside our walls. We've got to be able to move people out very quickly to an isolation location." 

As part of an emergency response package, the federal government said Wednesday it will double funds for a program to help communities address local needs for homeless people. 

The City of Montreal said it's in constant contact with shelters and community organizations and will be deploying the resources as necessary, based on the availability of its employees.

With files from Jessica Deer

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