Homeless shelters across Quebec adapt to new reality of COVID-19

Some homeless shelters in Quebec are moving their operations to larger locations to ensure users have space or are closing down certain services, to respect the province's health guidelines for social distancing.

First-line workers hope they are next up in government's emergency response measures

Val-d'Or's day centre, Chez Willie, has been relocated temporarily to offer a safer environment to the city's homeless population. (Submitted by Edith Cloutier)

Homeless shelters in Quebec are moving or closing certain services to respect the province's public health guidelines in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Native Friendship Centre in Val-d'Or, about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, moved the day centre it manages, Chez Willie, to a larger community centre that is used as a public market in the summer.

The centre's director, Edith Cloutier, said everyone in the community is trying to make the best out of a tough situation.

"We're providing a safe space for the most vulnerable people in our society. So we're all pretty happy with the outcome of this," said Cloutier.

Chez Willie welcomes up to 50 people every day from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. in its downtown building. That made it too small to respect the physical distancing required by Quebec public health officials.

Staff moved tables, chairs and supplies on Thursday to the Place Agnico Eagle, to welcome people in need of a place to go during the day.

Cloutier said by 6 p.m., when they opened the doors to the public, there was already a lineup outside.

"It's a small town but people know where to go. We can feel they're relieved knowing that people are taking care of them," said Cloutier.

The new space at Place Agnico-Eagle in Val-d'Or will allow staff and the clientele to respect the preventive measures recommended by the public officials regarding social distancing. (Submitted by Edith Cloutier)

She is hoping the province will soon provide emergency funding to front-line organizations that deliver essential services, such as hers.

The friendship centre had to close down its main building last week. Cloutier said social workers are doing their best to accompany their clients through other means, but organizations across the province will need help finding alternatives.

"We have women, children, elders, that come through our friendship centre for help and support, sometimes in a time of crisis. So we're very concerned, but we're doing the best we can."

Longer meal times

Quebec City's largest homeless shelter, L'Auberivière, has cut down on some of its services.

The small café it runs in the basement of the Saint-Roch Church is closed, to allow the organization to redirect staff to its main soup kitchen.

"The cafe was a place of gathering — since the population is being asked not to gather, we are asking the same from our clientele," said general manager Éric Boulay.

L'Auberivière shelter general manager Éric Boulay said people are adapting to the new rules put in place by public health, regarding the COVID-19 crisis. (Nicole Germain/Radio-Canada)

Boulay said the shelter has re-organized its meal times to spread them out over a longer period to make sure there are 50 per cent less people in the cafeteria at any given moment.

Staff disinfect tables and chairs between each sitting and make sure people are aware of the recommendations around hand-washing and hygiene.

Earlier this week, L'Auberivière put out a call for help because it lost many volunteers who were over the age of 70, and who had to stay home under the government's directives.

School groups are also not available to help out at the soup kitchen.

Boulay said he received an overwhelming number of calls in the days that followed, and he will be training new volunteers as of next week.

"We're very happy with the reaction from people who support organizations like L'Auberivière," Boulay said.

"We're used to reacting to crisis, and that's what we've been doing since Sunday, reasonably."

In Montreal, the old Royal Victoria Hospital on the flank of Mount Royal, 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.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said those now staying at the shelter are going to be moved to various locations identified by the city, in collaboration with homeless organizations.

Sam Watts, the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, said Montreal's plan is a "very good idea."

"We have got to look at this as not just a health issue among the homeless population. It's a health issue for Montreal," he said on CBC Montreal's Let's Go on Friday. 

"By dealing with and serving a population that is in need and that's vulnerable, we're actually going to be serving the whole city."

With files from Victoria Emanuelle Forest-Briand


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