Maurice Richard Arena turned into shelter as city seeks new ways to help homeless avoid COVID-19

Montreal's Maurice Richard Arena will be opening its doors tonight — not to skaters, but to the city's homeless, as part of the latest effort to keep some of the most vulnerable people safe from infection.

Dozens of people found taking shelter in the Metro system with day shelters closed

Among its new measures, Montreal is sending social intervention teams into the city's Metro system to reach out to homeless people who are seeking refuge underground. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Montreal's Maurice Richard Arena, situated next to the Olympic Stadium, is now open to the city's homeless population as part of a series of measures aimed at helping those without a roof over their heads during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are determined not to let the health crisis that we are experiencing become a humanitarian crisis," said Mayor Valérie Plante in a statement Monday, vowing to intervene as long as necessary.

"We will not leave anyone behind."

Details about the new 78-bed facility are still limited. The city's announcement who is running it and whether it will serve any homeless person who shows up there, regardless of gender. The city did not respond to a request for more information about the shelter.

Since Montreal declared a state of emergency on March 27 to address the needs of Montreal's homeless population, 541 new beds have been made available.

Temporary shelters are now open at two YMCAs, the Bonsecours Market and at the Jean-Claude-Malépart centre. An isolation unit has been set up at the former Royal Victoria hospital, for those who test positive for COVID-19. 

The city has also taken over a hotel in the Quartier des Spectacles, to serve as an isolation unit for homeless people who are awaiting test results.

Five outdoor day shelters have been set up in public spaces to offer homeless people food and health services. On Tuesday, the city will open its fourth indoor day shelter, at Dawson College, near Cabot Square.

Montreal sent social intervention teams into the city's Metro system over the weekend, connecting with more than 130 homeless people who have been seeking refuge underground, in the network's Orange and Green lines.

The number of people sleeping in the Metro has spiked since day centres and other services closed. The intervention teams are offering support and directing those in need to various social services, the city says. 

Need for long-term plan now: Watts

Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, is currently managing five shelters, along with community partners such as the Old Brewery Mission.

Watts is not involved with the Maurice Richard Arena initiative, however. He said he only learned about the east-end shelter on Monday, and while he is pleased to see the Plante administration helping the homeless, he said it's important that organizations remain involved at every step.

"It's not as easy to just flip a switch and throw some beds into a place," said Watts. "There needs to be a plan for how to do it."

Volunteers at Le Réseau d'entraide wear diving masks, getting food ready for a long line of people waiting for service Monday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

There are plenty of residents who need help in the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough, where the new shelter is located, Watts said.

Watts said there are people throughout the city that need long-term solutions rather than band-aid fixes during a pandemic that could last months, if not years, as scientists scramble to develop a vaccine.

He said there hasn't been a noticeable increase in homeless people despite the economic shutdown, but the demand on food banks has spiked.

As non-profit organizations struggle to meet the growing demand for help, Watts is worried about his staff catching COVID-19 or being forced into quarantine due to exposure.

Montreal can't afford to lose that experienced help, he said, but all it will take is an outbreak among staff and "we would have a problem."

With files from Radio-Canada

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