Homeless man who tested positive for COVID-19 left to wander Montreal streets after screening

The Old Brewery Mission's executive director, Matthew Pearce, says more needs to be done to ensure homeless people are protected from the coronavirus, as the rest of the province goes into social isolation.

Police found man in food line-up outside Old Brewery Mission

While most people can expect a call after they get tested in Montreal, most homeless people don't have phones, so public health officials have no way to reach them, said Nakuset, the director of the Resilience day centre. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A homeless man in Montreal who has tested positive for COVID-19 turned up at a Montreal homeless shelter Monday seeking food.

The patient's contact with staff was minimal, and he didn't enter the building, according to the Old Brewery Mission's executive director, Matthew Pearce. 

"We are very concerned about a homeless person out on the streets of Montreal with COVID-19," said Pearce.

It's not known if the man knew he was positive or if he only found out from police.

"The police came to find the man, and they did find him in a line outside our men's pavilion," said Pearce.

Whatever the circumstance, Pearce said, it is disconcerting to learn that a homeless person who was tested for COVID-19 was then left to roam city streets while awaiting results.

"I think the person should have been given a designated area," he said. "When you're being tested, and there's a concern, you need to isolate."

The man's coronavirus infection, the first known case among that vulnerable population, is only the beginning, he said. He and other advocates for the estimated 3,000 Montrealers living on the streets are desperately trying to stop the virus from sweeping through that population.

Old Brewery Mission's CEO, Matthew Pearce, said at his shelter, nobody came into close contact with the patient, but public health needs to have a plan in place right now for what to do after they test someone who has nowhere to go to isolate themselves. (Montreal)

COVID-19 isolation unit for homeless not yet ready

Montreal's public health agency has issued a statement saying it is investigating the case.

"We are looking at all the measures to be put in place to reduce the risk of outbreaks in the homeless community," it said.

Pearce, who knows all too well the realities homeless people face every day, has several suggestions.

Montreal's homeless shelters should have all the equipment needed to fend off the virus, he said — be it protective gear for staff or testing on site.

Public health authorities should be working with homeless organizations, ensuring all that can be done is being done to contain the spread of the virus.

Last Friday, Montreal's director of public health, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said the old Royal Victoria Hospital, which has served as a temporary overflow shelter for homeless Montrealers and their pets for the last two winters, is being converted into a COVID-19 isolation unit for homeless people awaiting testing or those who become infected.

But that's not going to open until the end of the week, and Pearce and other advocates for people in the street say the homeless population can't wait that long.

"We need to be proactive now," said Nakuset, co-founder of the city's newest day centre, Resilience Montreal.

Day centre gets influx of visitors

With all the other centres, organizations and businesses closed, the day centre, located near the corner of Atwater Avenue and Ste-Catherine Street, has been getting about 140 visitors a day — a substantial jump since the days before the pandemic.

Though her staff and volunteers are doing everything they can to educate the population and prevent the spread of COVID-19, Nakuset said the city's homeless remain at high risk because they tend to gather in groups rather than staying two metres apart as recommended.

She said many homeless people have no access to the internet and don't watch television. Many, she said, don't realize the scope of the problem and, even if they do, they have nowhere else to turn but to each other, as there's no place left to go.

They don't even have proper facilities to wash their hands, she said.

She said she has been pushing health authorities and government officials to turn Resilience Montreal into a testing site because, even if a homeless person were to make their way down to a testing clinic, contacting them afterward is no easy task.

Advocates say there are up to 3,000 homeless people in Montreal, and with no place to go because everything is closed, they tend to congregate in groups. (Charles Contant/CBC)

At Resilience Montreal, Nakuset, said, staff would be able to more easily contact the homeless patient and make sure they are cared for.

She questions how officials plan to transport homeless patients to the Royal Victoria isolation unit if they test positive.

She said her staff need protective gear and more assistance before the situation gets out of control.

For now, Nakuset said, Resilience Montreal has reduced its hours and is open six days a week, feeding those in need and trying to disseminate crucial information.

Nakuset wants to keep the operation running, but she needs food donations and support from public health authorities to keep staff, volunteers and the homeless population safe, she said. 

With files from CBC's Antoni Nerestant

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