With the COVID-19 regulations and below zero weather, city shelters are scrambling to help the homeless.
“We are only able to allow in a fraction of the people that we normally allow in,” says John Tessier, a clinical coordinator for the Open Door shelter in Montreal. “We have to turn people away, unfortunately, which is heartbreaking.”
In mid-January, a COVID-19 outbreak at the shelter forced the Open Door to temporarily close.
One of the consequences: the death of homeless Innu man, Raphaël André. He was found frozen to death in an outdoor toilet, steps away from the shelter. Homeless advocates suspect he was trying to find warmth after Quebec’s 8 p.m. curfew.
Since then, The Open Door has been able to reopen their overnight services. Allowing 29 people inside, compared to their normal 80 person capacity.
“I’d rather go anywhere else other than sleep on the streets in this weather,” says Mohammed Adnane Kahouadji, who has slept in the streets before. “I can’t do it.”
The City of Montreal has added nearly 700 additional beds to emergency sites. The additional beds can be found in many centres, like at the former Royal Victoria hospital, Complexe Guy-Favreau, and the Pierre-Charbonneau center.
In addition to beds, there are now seven transportation shuttle services for the homeless.
Resources for the homeless, including essential supplies, can be found at several heat stops across the island, including one close to where André died.
“Exceptional work has paved the way for a gradual shift from the emergency measures taken these past few months, towards new, structuring projects,” said Lionel Carmant, minister for health and social services. “Our actions will continue to evolve, namely according to the health crisis and winter measures.”
But despite the additional accommodations for the homeless overnight, Tessier thinks more could be done.
“Leave the planning to the people on the ground who actually know what they’re doing, and have experience with homelessness,” he says. “Instead of people in offices that rarely have any interaction with homeless people.”
When the pandemic first began, Tessier requested to have on-site testing at the Open Door. He explains that most of his clientele do not feel comfortable going to institutionalized settings, around people they do not know. Tessier believes that testing at the shelter would help avoid another outbreak and the accompanying overnight closures.
“We’ve been told that it’s impossible and wasn’t needed,” said Tessier. “Neither of those are true because when there was an outbreak and we had to close, all of our beneficiaries were launched in the hotel where they had tests four times a week. So obviously it is possible and obviously it is necessary.”
“The homelessness situation is a provincial responsibility,” said Josefina Blanco, Plateau-Mont-Royal borough councillor. “So the city can be powerless in some situations.”
Blanco explains that the homeless situation is complex since the different levels of government need to work together for a better outcome.
“Community organizations are amazing,” adds Blanco. “They are doing miracles with really little.”
The CARE Montreal shelter is working on one of these “miracles” for the homeless during the cold weather. It’s a water, wind, and snow-proof shelter called the Iglou that can be used by individuals outside of shelters.
According to CARE Montreal’s General Manager, Michel Monette, officials don’t understand what the homeless face in Montreal.
“I was discouraged,” says Monette about the Premier sayind homeless people should not be exempted from the curfew. “He is totally disconnected from their reality, he has no one around him really giving him advice on how it is on the ground.”
A Quebec Superior Court judge later exempted homeless people from the province’s curfew.
Monette believes that the Iglous can be a warm place one can sleep after the curfew or a housing option to accommodate those experiencing homelessness who are choosing to not sleep in a shelter. A situation CARE Montreal’s client, Louis Rouillard, is experiencing. Rouillard showers and eats in the CARE Montreal building yet chooses to sleep in the trailer right outside.
“Sometimes, there are people who have [access to a shelter] but sleep on the streets,” said Kahouadji. “This is life.”
James Hughes, president and CEO at The Old Brewery Mission, would have liked the government to provide more funding to keeping homeless people inside, even during the day.
“Our vocation is to reduce homelessness through housing,” he said. “You can’t work on a housing plan for someone if they get kicked out during the day at their shelter.”
Hughes therefore has some concerns with the Iglou pilot project. According to him, this may only be a Band-Aid to the actual issue.
“Just to give that igloo and say good luck is not enough for me,” said Hughes. “It’s in fact in many ways the contrary of our mission, which is to try to move people from the street into housing which is not easy to do.”
“The fact that we live in a cold country makes things different,” says Blanco. “For so many years, the government was not responding to the housing needs, so when winter comes, we need to work really hard to offer new places.”
“When a homeless [person] dies in Canada, in any of our cities, it’s Canadians that fail,” says Monette.