An unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak is overtaking Montreal’s homeless community, closing shelters, infecting staff and leaving dozens to wander the streets not knowing whether they tested positive for the virus.

When infections surfaced at The Open Door shelter on Parc Ave. on Dec. 31, roughly 70 people were tested for COVID-19. Of those, 30 tests came back positive.

Over the next two days, another shelter, Projets Autochtones du Québec, confirmed an additional 17 cases out of 29 people it sent for tests.

“Some people know, some people don’t. Some people are wandering the streets with COVID-19, unaware that they’re spreading it,” said Heather Johnson, director general of PAQ.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s affecting every single organization that serves the homeless.”

Reduced number of spaces

Johnson and two other sources say there’s no more room for those experiencing homelessness at the old Royal Victoria Hospital, which was converted to an emergency shelter last year for those with COVID-19. She says the outbreak is mainly affecting Indigenous people who sleep at the shelter inside the Guy-Favreau Complex in downtown Montreal.

“We went from having about eight people at the old [Royal] Victoria site in mid-December to 25 in no time,” said Sam Watts, who is overseeing the emergency shelter. “By Thursday, the Royal Vic should be able to accommodate 125 people in a red-zone quarantine.

“Is this a crisis? Yes, probably. But considering we’re working with the provincial health authorities, healthcare unions and a massive piece of infrastructure, this is warp speed by Quebec standards.”

Hotels that have taken in people who are homeless throughout the pandemic can no longer accept new clients, according to two sources who work in the community.

“This is an emergency unlike any we’ve had so far.”

On the western edge of downtown, Resilience Montreal’s services have ground to a halt. The day shelter could previously serve 60 clients while respecting COVID-19 restrictions, but because of the new infections they’ve been reduced to allowing just 12 people in their facility at a time.

“The problem is, there are at least 10 people who tested positive and we don’t know their names,” said Nakuset, a manager with Resilience Montreal. “So we sort of have to assume everyone we come into contact with is COVID positive.

“We’re not sure they’ve been advised either. The homeless don’t all have cell phones or can’t easily be reached so they’re almost certainly infecting new people and not knowing it.

“It’s bonkers. Our workers are afraid of coming in, they’re afraid they’ll be infected and they’ll spread it to more people. This is the worst-case scenario.”

A line of people outside Resilience spilled far out into the street and around the block Monday morning, according to David Chapman, who manages the shelter’s day-to-day operations.

‘We need help, and we need it now’

Another problem is that not every person experiencing homelessness is medically fit to self-isolate under normal circumstances. Those who struggle with alcohol addiction will go into withdrawal, which can be fatal.

Johnson says getting into a detox program is next to impossible given that Montreal’s hospitals are at capacity with thousands of new COVID-19 cases hitting the province every day.

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Others have severe mental health conditions, which further complicates their ability to safely quarantine.

Nakuset says once the first wave of the pandemic crested, emergency workers loaned to the shelter by Quebec’s public health department were reassigned to their normal duties. They’re needed now more than ever, she says.

“We need help and we need it now,” she said. “This is an emergency unlike any we’ve had so far. We need shelter but it needs to be well ventilated, even if it’s a military tent or a wedding tent or a bar mitzvah tent. We need to get creative.”

Watts says that another obstacle in managing the outbreak is that the province’s governing Coalition Avenir Québec party has no seats in or near downtown Montreal.

“I have a backchannel to the health minister but it’s not the same as if there were elected officials with constituents in the city,” says Watts. “They’re not getting the same kind of raw information they would if their riding offices were in our community. With that said, they’re doing their best in the midst of a crisis.”

One of the side effects of the pandemic, Watts says, is that he’s seen an increase in overdose deaths over the past few months — an increase that is likely amplified by a healthcare network that’s been maxed out due to the coronavirus. There’s a “50 per cent risk” Montreal’s hospitals will exceed their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients within three weeks, according to projections used by Quebec’s health ministry.

Nakuset and Chapman say they’ve also lost clients to overdoses recently.

“I’m not an expert but from what I’m hearing, there’s a problem with the drug supply being tainted,” says Watts. “We lost a 24-year-old over the holidays. I’m always positive we’ll make it out and do the most we can for the most amount of vulnerable people.

“But people are dying and that’s never easy.”

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