Homeless under curfew: Montreal added shelter space this year, but the situation's complicated

If the news of a curfew came as a shock, just imagine how it felt to people without a home to go to.

"We just don't know for now because it's brand new for us too… what can we do?" said one person at the Open Door shelter on Thursday, a day after the announcement of the 8 p.m. COVID-19 curfew.

For the group of friends at the shelter, normally evenings and nights would be spent there, too -- the Open Door just upgraded its space to safely sleep 65. 

But even those beds are now off the table, as public health recently told the shelter to have no one there after 9:30 p.m., and just 25 during the day, according to staff.

"We're basically going to be forcing people to break the law -- 'Here you are at 9:30, now get out and violate the curfew, which was an hour and a half ago,'" said John Tessier, who works at the shelter.

How homeless Montrealers will navigate the curfew is a contentious question, with less than 48 hours left to settle it.

Premier François Legault has said there are enough beds in Montreal to house the homeless. But those who work with the street community disagree.

"There are absolutely not enough beds, and this response proves to us that the premier is completely out of touch with reality," said Amanda Moniz of the Montreal Indigenous Community Network.

Not everyone is eligible for all the city's shelter spaces, Moniz pointed out: addictions, mental health problems, mobility restrictions and even owning a pet can all rule out different shelters.

A DIZZYING SERIES OF CHANGES

The shelter system has been vastly changed and expanded during COVID-19, with large groups of people shuffled around -- especially recently, as the cases soared for the first time among the city's homeless population.

First one and then two hotel-based shelters were opened. A pavilion of the Royal Victoria Hospital was dedicated to COVID-19 self-isolation -- until it was turned largely into a red zone because of the rising case load.

But, like the Open Door, some other shelters, including ones that serve loyal clientele, have had to close their new overnight setups.

Until Christmas, Chez Doris women's shelter downtown was open overnight, housing up to 34 people in four rooms, with Plexiglass filters to help hinder virus transmission.

But a staff member tested positive on Dec. 24, meaning the rest of the staff needed to self-isolate and couldn't work. Montreal Public Health stepped in.

"We went to a hotel originally, because we didn’t have enough staff, and now we are being told by the CIUSSS Centre Sud, by the person who is responsible for the homeless services, that we should continue using the hotel -- that perhaps there was an outbreak because people are too close in proximity," said Chez Doris director Marina Boulos-Winton.

About 40 clients of Chez Doris are continuing to stay in the hotel for the time being, at a charge of $59 per night, with the bill paid by public health and Chez Doris.

POLICE OFFICERS WILL CHOOSE WHO'S TICKETED

Shelters and advocacy groups are now asking for permission to set up outdoor tents and warming stations, and also for homeless people not to be ticketed for being out past 8 p.m.

Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault says individual police officers will need to use their discretion to decide who gets ticketed. Fines, when they're given out, can range from $1,000 to $6,000.

"We don't want to give fines just for the sake of giving fines," Guilbault said. "The main goal is to help them find a place in a shelter, and help them in general and protect them." 

Montreal police put out a statement Thursday saying they will be approaching enforcement carefully and will give special consideration to "people in vulnerable situations."

Advocates say they're not convinced yet, but are waiting and seeing if the province does find a solution.

Watch Iman Kassam's report from the Open Door in the video above.

--With files from Max Harrold

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