'It's heartbreaking': Homeless during pandemic left out in the cold — figuratively and literally

With most shelters full and operating at a lowered capacity to adhere to physical distancing rules, some cities including Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, are putting up the homeless in hotels. But advocates say there are too few beds and not enough being done.

Advocates urging governments to provide more shelters, amenities for homeless

Resilience Montreal, a day centre for the homeless, set up tables in Cabot Square in an effort to maintain physical distancing while assisting Montreal's homeless population. (Simon Martel/CBC)

Red and blue tents dot the landscape in Montreal's Cabot Square. It's not a farmers market or a craft show, but a makeshift place for the homeless to go during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These tents aren't where the city's most vulnerable — estimated to be more than 3,100, but likely much higher — can seek shelter. They're where they can get food, perhaps a small blanket or a mask to protect themselves against the deadly coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. It's an illness that has claimed the lives of more than 130,000 people globally and 1,273 people in Canada, with 630 in Quebec alone.

Advocates for the homeless say Canada's homeless are being neglected during the outbreak and are calling on governments to step up and provide housing to the most vulnerable. While the public's attention is focused on seniors' residences hit hard by COVID-19, the homeless, too, are at a greater risk of succumbing to the illness, as they often have underlying health conditions.

With most shelters full and operating at a lowered capacity to adhere to physical distancing rules, some cities, such as Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, are putting up the homeless in hotels. But advocates say there are too few beds and not enough being done.

One of many signs put up in Cabot Square by Resilience Montreal. (Submitted by Nakuset)

Nakuset (she doesn't use a surname) is the executive director for the Native Women's Shelter in Montreal and co-administrator at Resilience Montreal, a collaboration between the shelter and Nazareth Community, a non-profit day shelter in the city. She is frustrated that the homeless are being left out in the cold — figuratively and literally — during this pandemic.

So it's kind of like everyone just kind of turned their backs.​​​​- Nakuset, executive director of Native Women's Shelter

"It's really difficult to see that the city could declare a state of emergency for the homeless and just offer 222 rooms. That's not enough," she said of Montreal's declaration on March 27. "They have no where to go. All the shopping malls are shut down. All the accesses to the metro are pretty much shut down.… There's not enough food. There's not enough warmth. There's not enough of anything. So it's kind of like everyone just kind of turned their backs." 

To date, there are 10 COVID-19 cases in Montreal's homeless community.

At the best of times, if there are any, the homeless face incredible challenges, but no time as great as now, Nakuset said. Those who exhibit symptoms face stigma or the inability to be housed at one of the few empty hotels taking in those who test positive for the disease. Some who have pets may be turned away. For others, there is a fear of people in positions of authority, such as police or even paramedics.

Nakuset urged the city to provide more access to hotels that are empty amid the crisis so the homeless can at least keep warm as well as stick to the physical distancing guidelines.

"God, you know, we have to do better," she said. "If this mayor is going to call a state of emergency for the homeless, you have to do better. Be like Toronto: open 500 rooms."

She's also frustrated with the federal government's response. 

"When Justin Trudeau does his messages, his messages are for those that are privileged to have an apartment or home. His message is never to the homeless," she said. "The fact that … the government is going to give $1,500 to migrant workers to self-isolate? Wait a minute. You're not offering that to the homeless population.… Everyone, leave the country and come back as a migrant because you're better off." 

City hall protest

While Toronto's public health agency said it has moved more than 1,000 people "to programs that meet a range of client needs, including spaces in community centres, hotel rooms and permanent housing, we are on track to move another 1,000 into new spaces by April 30."

The agency also said it has "secured" more than 1,200 spaces at 12 hotels. Eleven new facilities have been mobilized with more than 470 spaces to allow for physical distancing.

But some advocates think Toronto isn't doing enough or acting fast enough.

WATCH | How physical distancing can reduce the spread of coronavirus: 

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On Wednesday, doctors, nurses and front-line workers joined together with advocacy groups to stage a physically distanced protest at city hall calling on the city to speed up its efforts to safely house the city's homeless population.

To date, there have been 60 confirmed cases in shelters across Toronto among the estimated 5,000 people using the facilities, according to Toronto Public Health. 

Sanctuary Toronto, a Christian charitable organization, is offering a place for the homeless and more vulnerable in the community. It has distributed roughly 100 tents with more than a dozen at its downtown location.

'You kind of wonder if anyone cares'

"This is not what we prefer," said Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Toronto. "We prefer for everybody to have safe, affordable housing where they can distance on their own. The best would be to get everybody into housing right away. That's not possible given the state of housing in Toronto, but there are thousands of empty hotel rooms."

Doug Johnson Hatlem of Sanctuary Toronto, right, distributes a mask to Robert Dods. Dods's tent, seen in the background, is pitched beside Sanctuary. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

And while Sanctuary Toronto is open a few hours of the day, it can't provide housing. That's why it has allowed people to set up tents. 

Nikki Renaud and Romeo Pratt are using Sanctuary's services, but they have their own concerns.

"I feel safer, but I mean it's hard at the same time, because people come and go, and we can't self distance properly," Renaud said.

The couple have seen their share of deaths in recent weeks, and they mourn alone, unable to hold even a memorial for their friends.

"You kind of wonder if anyone cares," Pratt said.

Nikki Renaud and Romeo Pratt, seen here outside Sanctuary Toronto, have been using the services during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC )

Staff safety a concern

In an unprecedented move, Doctors Without Borders, which usually operates in developing countries, is building a 400-bed facility for the homeless who test positive for COVID-19. It will be run by local health-care workers in Toronto. 

"It's an important effort and one that is really vital, but is also, I think, a sobering reminder of the potential magnitude of the problem that we would be facing if there's extensive spread of COVID-19," said Stephen Hwang, a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, and director of MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions. 

Johnson Hatlem discusses plans to expand the tent capacity of Sanctuary Toronto's backyard with a client. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Hwang understands first-hand the vulnerability the homeless population faces. On top of his two roles, he runs a clinic at Seaton House, a Toronto men's shelter. But because he works in the hospital and wants to mitigate the risk to those using Seaton House, he's not going to the shelter.

'Very concerned'

He's not just concerned about the homeless. He also worries about the safety of staff working in shelters.

"They are very concerned about the potential for an outbreak in their shelter and getting it themselves," Hwang said.

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Back in Montreal, Nakuset continues to fight for those who can't fight for themselves, meeting with city representatives to find solutions and to act quickly, and hopefully even provide a doctor on site at Cabot Square.

But she's also trying to boost the spirits of those who are seeking some sort of shelter during these challenging times.

"All those people that are usually used to being indoors, have not been for a month," Nakuset said. "It's heartbreaking."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at

With files from Nicole Ireland and Lorenda Reddekopp

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