Montreal's old Royal Victoria Hospital to be converted to COVID-19 isolation unit for homeless

The 19th-century former hospital on the flank of Mount Royal has served as an overflow shelter for Montreal's homeless throughout the winter, however, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said new places will be found to accommodate people who've been staying there.

Current residents of temporary hospital shelter being moved out, city says

The Ross Pavilion originally opened in 1916 and housed private patient rooms. Now it is going to serve as an isolation unit for homeless people during the COVID-19 crisis. (CBC)

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.

Dr. Mylène Drouin, the director of public health for Montreal, said the Royal Victoria will be repurposed as a place for homeless people to stay while they await test results or once they have been found to be positive but are not so sick that require hospitalization.

Winter is not over yet, and "we cannot afford to leave more people outside in the current situation," said Julie Grenier, an official with the regional health authority, the CIUSSS Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal. 

"There will be about 50 places to begin with but that will continue to change," Grenier said. "There is capacity for 100, 150 people. They will do what needs to be done to take in the people that need it."

Grenier said the city wants to ensure that during the crisis, community organizations have a place to send clients who are possibly infected by the novel coronavirus, so they don't try to isolate them in their own often-crowded facilities.

Montreal is also continuing to offer municipal staff to Moisson Montréal, the city's largest food bank, to help maintain operations during the volunteer shortage.

Plante said the city is also installing public toilets with running water in strategic spots and sharing the location of those washrooms with local homeless advocacy groups and organizations to ensure people have a clean place to use the restroom and to wash. Most will be around the downtown area, she said.

She said Centraide Montreal has offered hygiene products and similar items to help in the "team effort." 

"Things are changing. We need to adapt," she said.

Homeless advocates applaud city's plan

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."

At centres like Welcome Hall, Watts said, the homeless, who often have underlying illnesses, are in close proximity to one another. He said there have been extensive efforts to keep people safe.

There are some 700 people in Montreal who seek shelter each night, he said. Staff at all the shelters will be trained in how to recognize symptoms of COVID-19, and people who may be infected will be transported to the old Royal Vic, tested there and monitored. 

If they test positive, other protocols will be in place. If need be, they will be transferred to hospital.  Some details are still being worked out as the situation evolves, Watts said.

Welcome Hall, which provides meals, groceries and a range of social services to about 600 people a day, has been scaling back on interactions with its clients all week, shutting down some services which are critical to the city's poor and homeless.

Old Brewery Mission's CEO, Matthew Pearce, said earlier this week he would like to see a quarantine homeless shelter and now Montreal is setting one up. (Montreal)

Another Montreal shelter, the Old Brewery Mission, has already closed its warming station, and St. Michael's Mission has shut down a range of services, such as its internet café.

"This is a social issue. Not simply a homeless issue," said Matthew Pearce, the Old Brewery Mission's executive director.

"If the virus ever finds itself in a shelter, unless we have recourse like this quarantine centre, the risk of propagation and spreading — it's almost unstoppable."

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