If Laura goes to sleep in a homeless shelter, she could wake up convulsing and die.

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s alcohol withdrawal, which can happen to your body when you’ve had a substance dependency for long enough.

So Laura (not her real name) sleeps at a camp in the heart of Montreal’s Milton-Parc district, where she can manage her alcohol intake. But as of Saturday, it will be illegal for her to be outside after 8 p.m. Under the terms of a province-wide curfew imposed by the Coalition Avenir Québec government, she’ll be subject to a fine of between $1,000 and $6,000 if she is caught outside.

There’s another reason she’s scared to go inside. After an outbreak in Montreal’s shelter system, over 100 people have tested positive for COVID-19. About half of them are Indigenous and many among them already have severe respiratory problems.

Laura has been hospitalized twice for tuberculosis in the past year, according to Sean French, her ex-boyfriend. French said he’s scared of what might happen if she contracts COVID-19.

“She’s the mother of my daughter. I can’t imagine how devastating her death would be to us,” said French.

Loved ones fear the worst

Laura is from an Inuit village in the region of Nunavik, where tuberculosis rates are more than 100 times higher than in the rest of Quebec. Given that both TB and COVID-19 attack the respiratory system, Laura and others with severe respiratory illness are at a much higher risk of dying from the coronavirus should they contract it.

The outbreak among Montreal’s homeless first surfaced in mid-December around an area of Milton-Parc where Inuit congregate. Now that dozens have tested positive for COVID-19, their loved ones fear the worst.

SUPPORT THE ROVER If you’d like to see more journalism like this, sign up for The Rover, a newsletter-supported reporting project brought to you by Christopher Curtis and Ricochet Media. The inside scoop in your inbox, every Friday.

“Laura is someone who most of her life has been a real struggle with alcoholism, but she’s someone who had to overcome a lot too,” said French. “The years where she could keep it together, she gave everything she could to our daughter. She was an educator at a daycare centre in Kuujjuaq, she helped a lot of children in her life, she’s made a lot of people happy.

“And now, she’s in a situation where she might contract COVID if she hasn’t already. It’s just not realistic to put her in a shelter.”

When asked about whether the homeless population would be subject to fines for breaking curfew, Premier François Legault said Wednesday that they too had to be inside after 8 p.m. Legault says there “are enough spaces available” in Montreal’s shelter system.

But experts who spoke to Ricochet say the premier doesn’t grasp how bad things are on the streets right now.

Curfew confusion

“The shelters are on the verge of collapse,” said Nakuset, who oversees Resilience Montreal and the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. “Right now, all we can do is give people a bit of food, some clothes and send them back outside.

“Threatening people with fines is just one more way to push the homeless further into the shadows. It’s bad policy.”

The outbreak has forced Quebec’s public health department to close Montreal’s six warming centres, which provided food and overnight shelter to hundreds.

“Coercive methods like fines don’t work with this population. It hasn’t in the past and it won’t now.”

“The reality is there are people who can’t or won’t access a shelter overnight,” said James Hughes, president of the Old Brewery Mission. “And with regards to a curfew, I would simply ask the police and the state to take a soft approach. Coercive methods like fines don’t work with this population. It hasn’t in the past and it won’t now.”

There’s also confusion as to how the curfew will be enforced when it comes to people facing homelessness. A spokesperson for the Montreal police told Ricochet to ask the city government about enforcement. The city said the curfew is a public health ordinance and therefore it’s up to Quebec to decide how fines will be doled out.

Hughes is working with Quebec’s health ministry to arrange for an increase in emergency beds for the homeless. The old Royal Victoria Hospital has been converted to a COVID centre, where over 100 homeless individuals can isolate under medical supervision.

The red zone is also overseen by Projets Autochtones du Québec and the Welcome Hall Mission, who have moved as quickly as they can to increase capacity from 25 beds in December to 125 today.

Meanwhile, some downtown hotels are being converted to shelters, and Complexe Guy-Favreau, a government office building downtown, can house hundreds overnight. There’s also the Solidaribus, a shuttle service that runs from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., helping people get off the street should they choose to.

‘COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on homelessness’

There may be another problem with Legault’s assertion that there are enough beds for the homeless. The latest data on Montreal homelessness comes from a 2018 study, which estimated that 3,150 sleep outside every night. Since then, the heads of the city’s major shelters say there’s been a sharp increase in homelessness.

Last year, Mayor Valérie Plante said the homeless population may be two times what it was in 2018. An investigation by Ricochet last fall found homeless camps sprouting up as far west as Lachine and as far north as Highway 40 — way outside the downtown core.

“There are more homeless now than at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s just a fact.”

“COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on homelessness,” said Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, in an earlier interview with Ricochet. “People working in hotels or restaurants, people who’ve never had to use a food bank are coming to our free grocery store every month. And that sort of poverty trickles its way down to the streets.

“I don’t think we should estimate the increase without hard data but there are more homeless now than at the beginning of the pandemic. That’s just a fact.”

French, who keeps in touch with Laura and others in the community, had to stop visiting downtown and offering help for fear that he might get infected and spread the illness.

“It breaks your heart and you can’t help but think that people like Laura are less important because they’re Native,” said French, who is Mohawk. “I’ve lost a lot of people to the streets. Friends who commit suicide, people who are murdered. It’s brutal and it’s sad that we, as a society, allow this to go on.

“But I guess that’s just part of being Native.”

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Sean French. We regret the error.
This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.