After staving off disaster, Montreal homeless organizations brace for 2nd COVID-19 wave

Montreal public health says a strong, unified effort appears to have paid off, as there have been only 21 positive cases among the more than 700 homeless people screened for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Federal governments contributes $10M to relief effort, homeless advocates seek lasting solutions

Montreal has an estimated 3,000 homeless people. Public health officials tested more than 700 for COVID-19 over the last three months, but only 21 tested positive. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press )

As head of Montreal's largest homeless advocacy organization, the Welcome Hall Mission, Sam Watts was bracing for the worst even before the pandemic struck.

Knowing how vulnerable the homeless population is, the Welcome Hall Mission teamed up with other like-minded agencies in the city. Watts said that early response, coupled with the timely intervention of the City of Montreal and the island's public health authority, prevented catastrophe.

"That's proven that if we work together, we can actually act quickly when presented with a problem." said Watts. "That's what has changed as a result of this pandemic."

Montreal's fears of a COVID-19 outbreak among the city's homeless triggered the decision to declare a local state of emergency on March 27.

Initiatives such as setting up outdoor day centres and opening extra shelters were launched quickly. Staff were given masks, shelters were disinfected, beds were set two metres apart, and testing began.

Montreal public health says those efforts appeared to have paid off, as there have been only 21 positive cases among the more than 700 homeless people screened.

"We didn't have any new, positive cases since the end of May," said Julie Grenier, who has been leading Montreal public health's homeless response.

"That is a very good score when you think about what this could have been."

Meanwhile, more than 27,000 Montrealers caught the disease, and more than 3,300 of them have died — most of them, residents of long-term care homes.

Getting ahead of future waves

Now homeless organizations, in partnership with public health officials, are refusing to let their guard down as they prepare for the next COVID-19 wave.

A recent $10-million contribution from the federal government will go toward helping homeless organizations provide emergency relief.

It will also help advocates boost efforts to get people off the streets and into permanent homes, Watts said.

Until long-term solutions are found, Montreal's old Royal Victoria Hospital will be used as an overflow shelter because space for beds has been limited by the two-metre distancing rule.

The former hospital was used as a COVID-19 isolation unit for homeless people but was closed earlier this month, as it was underused, Watts said.

Sam Watts, CEO and executive director of Montreal's Welcome Hall Mission, said $10 million recently contributed by the federal government will go toward emergency relief — but also toward finding more permanent homes for people living on the streets. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

The overflow shelter will likely have areas to house people who have COVID-19 symptoms, have been exposed to the disease or have tested positive.

For the last two winters, the old Royal Victoria's Ross Pavilion has served as an overflow shelter with relaxed rules that allowed both men and women and their pets to stay.

As that gets up and running, Grenier said Montreal public health will watch for any potential new outbreaks among the homeless population.

Teams will respond to specific groups, such as women or Indigenous people, who have particular needs, she said. And the shelter at the Royal Vic will be incorporated into that effort, building on what's been learned from the first wave.

"We want to be able to take care of them in an emergency shelter with an appropriate response," said Grenier. "That's why we're working very closely with our partners to put up this new response."

More could be done: Nakuset

Nakuset, director of Montreal's Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and co-manager of Resilience Montreal, a day centre serving the homeless population near Cabot Square, said still more could be done.

Many Indigenous people, specially women, haven't felt comfortable heading down to the large, pop-up testing centres that have had a heavy police presence, she said.

"We would send them in a taxi, and they would show up, take a look at all the cops and turn around and say, 'Nope, I'm not going to do it,'" Nakuset said. "If the police are there, people will not show."

Nakuset has been pushing hard for mobile testing to come to places like Cabot Square, where the city has allowed homeless organizations to set up tents and provide a range of services, including counselling and food.

Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, said many Indigenous women avoided going to pop-up testing sites because they were uncomfortable with the heavy police presence there. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

But that testing didn't happen until Tuesday, and with the hot sun beating down, only 11 showed up for screening during the two hours the testing was available, she said. That's not enough time on site, said Nakuset, noting mobile clinics have stayed in residential neighbourhoods for days at a stretch.

Grenier said the on-site testing was co-ordinated with Nakuset at her request, and Resilience was tasked with drawing people to the site at the allotted time.

However, there are currently no active cases among the homeless, Grenier said, and only those who are showing symptoms are eligible to be tested. 

Finding long-term solutions

While things may be quiet now, there's a lot of work to do before a second wave hits, said the Old Brewery Mission's executive director, Matthew Pearce.

"We should be looking at, obviously, making sure no one is left behind, and everyone has a safe and secure place to be," he said. "We really have to focus on getting homeless people in housing."

This goal is more important than ever, he said, because people will have a place to stay when future waves hit. 

This is a shared goal that all partnering homeless organizations are striving toward, as "homelessness doesn't really need to exist in 2020 and 2021 in Montreal," said Watts. "There are ways we can solve that problem systematically."

Old Brewery Mission's CEO, Matthew Pearce, said he'd like to see a quarantine homeless shelter established in the city. (Montreal)

But in an economic downturn, in the midst of a pre-existing housing crisis, advocates for the homeless are worried. People in already precarious housing situations may soon find themselves living on the streets, Pearce said.

If that happens, he said, homeless organizations are ready to offer services while carefully following public health guidelines.

"We must remain vigilant so when the second wave comes, it hits a wall of protection that we have created for the homeless population,"  Pearce said.

"I don't know if we'll succeed, but we're going to do our best."

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