Montreal homeless shelters fear COVID-19 crisis as cases rise and temperatures drop


MONTREAL – Heads of several Montreal homeless shelters say they face crisis, as increased staff absences due to COVID-19 threaten to disrupt services during colder part of Winter.

There were outbreaks in 27 homeless shelters in Montreal between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, with a total of 110 employees and customers testing positive during that time, according to the local health authority in the south of the city.

Michel Monette, CEO of CARE Montreal, says the city is “on the brink of a humanitarian crisis”.

Nearly 30% of its employees are currently on leave due to a positive COVID-19 test, and up to 25% of shelter users have tested positive, he said in an interview Thursday. If he has managed to keep all the beds at the shelter open for now, he says he will have to close dozens of them if the situation worsens, and he has already had to stop offering other services, including care. psychosocial.

“The shelters are at full capacity; our users and employees are getting sick, ”he said. “I have three, four employees diagnosed positive every day. It doesn’t stop.

Sam Watts, CEO of Welcome Hall Mission, said the 108-bed hotel the city had requisitioned for homeless people who tested positive for COVID-19 was already full, leaving shelters wondering what to do with those who tested positive.

Watts, however, said his biggest concern was the staff shortage. Although his own organization has done well so far, he said smaller shelters have had to downsize due to outbreaks, which he says puts more emphasis on the system in his outfit.

He said he feared a major outbreak that would force the disruption of services at one of the city’s three largest shelters – a situation he said would be “catastrophic.”

“You would not have exaggerated to say that the situation is on a razor’s edge in Montreal regarding the ability to serve,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Watts said shelters were doing everything possible to keep staff safe by using masks, deploying rapid tests, asking people to reduce contact and holding COVID-19 recall clinics. He said the vaccination rate among workers in his organization is high, which may have helped him avoid the worst so far.

Nakuset, who uses only one name and is the director of the Montreal Native Women’s Refuge, says her organization has also been fortunate to have had few cases of COVID-19 so far this winter. The shelter decided at the end of December to no longer accept new clients due to the Omicron variant of the new coronavirus – a measure it hopes to lift soon.

However, she says it is difficult to operate as the city has provided fewer emergency resources this year compared to a year ago, adding that the challenges this year are greater.

“We have more cases, more homeless than last year, less services,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

Nakuset said she needs to raise funds to keep a heated tent open this season which was opened last year after a native homeless man died outside on a freezing cold night after a neighboring shelter. She said she learned that six staff at that tent had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We’re just doing it on a day-to-day basis and trying to find a way to balance everything out and protect people and not shut down,” she said.

While the City of Montreal recently announced that it had requisitioned two hotels to allow HIV-positive people to self-isolate, Nakuset says one is not for families with children, adding that the other is not opening. than in February. Last year, she said the city opened more temporary shelters, including one at Bonsecours Market in Old Montreal.

In an email, a spokeswoman for mayoress Valérie Plante’s office said Thursday the city was assessing sites for more emergency shelters.

“We have never hesitated to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and we will not leave anyone behind,” the statement said, noting that the city had doubled the budget devoted to the fight against homelessness in 2022.

But Watts and Monette both noted that beds alone wouldn’t solve the problem, as shelters need staff to supervise them.

Watts said if emergency services are needed, eventually there must be a broader reform of the way services are delivered in the city. This includes a coordinated reception system to help meet people’s diverse health and accommodation needs, rather than a “patchwork collection” of underfunded groups providing services to the most vulnerable.

The provincial government, Watts added, must implement a rent supplement program, which he said would help attract more people to apartments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 7, 2022.

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