Montreal

As COVID-19 cases soar among Montreal's homeless population, advocates say it's time for priority vaccination

Community groups are urging the Quebec government to provide homeless people and those who help them priority access to COVID-19 vaccines. They say the rise in the number of coronavirus cases among people who live on the street has been worrisome.

Groups say homeless population mostly spared during first wave, cases skyrocketing since holidays

Community groups say there has been a major spike in COVID-19 cases since the holidays. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

With the number of COVID-19 cases exploding among homeless people in Montreal, local community groups are calling on the Quebec government to prioritize vaccines for those living on the street, as well as the people who support them.

The Old Brewery Mission, the Welcome Hall Mission, Maison du Père and Accueil Bonneau say they counted a total of 21 positive cases over a ten-month stretch, between March and the start of the holiday season.

Since then, however, they say that total shot up by at least 96 cases, and they say a vaccine is needed to limit the virus's potentially deadly spread within the local homeless population.

"People who are in situations of homelessness are already dealing with multiple health issues," said Fiona Crossling, the executive director of Accueil Bonneau.

"For the staff, it would bring down the anxiety levels and also ensure that there aren't shortages in the system. We don't reduce the number of people who need our services because of COVID, but if the number of staff is reduced than that becomes more difficult."

The province's four-week overnight curfew kicked in last weekend, and advocates say more space is needed to make sure homeless people don't spend the night outdoors. 

Add to that the difficulty of maintaining a physical distance within shelters and warming centres, and the groups say outbreaks could lead to spaces for the homeless closing down, further limiting the number of spaces for them to spend the night.

Fiona Crossling, Accueil Bonneau's the executive director, says support staff in shelters are getting worried due to the increase in cases among the city's homeless. (Aislinn May/CBC)

Last month, the Open Door shelter had to close following an outbreak among staff. 

So far, the province has come up with a list of nine priority groups for its vaccination campaign, with long-term care homes and health-care workers at the top of it. Other priority groups include people living in private seniors homes, residents in remote and isolated communities, people who are 60 and older as well as younger adults who are at risk of complications due to COVID-19. 

The last priority group includes adults ''who provide essential services and have contact with users.''

The federal government's guidelines specifically mentions residents and staff in homeless shelters as priorities, but not before the nine priority groups.

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said the province is focused on vaccinating people in long-term care as well as health-care workers. They said the next steps in the vaccination schedule have not yet been determined.

"The workers in our centres are considered essential workers so we have not closed down, we have not limited our services during COVID," said Crossling.

"And yet, so far we don't have access to the vaccine as a priority like the health-care sector does."

With files from Franca Mignacca

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