Montreal homeless shelters want vaccine priority for staff amid major outbreak, curfew crunch

Homeless Montrealers and the front-line shelter staff are increasingly testing positive for COVID-19, according to four of the city's well-known resources for the homeless.

Among the homeless population alone, 96 new positive cases have been counted since the holiday season, compared to 21 cases from March to December, as of a Tuesday update from these groups.

The Old Brewery Mission, Welcome Hall Mission, Maison du Père and Accueil Bonneau are now asking the government of Quebec to give vaccine priority to homeless people and support workers.

“Vaccination is the first line of defence against a pandemic,” said Fiona Crossling, Executive Director of Accueil Bonneau.

"Our workers are doing their best to keep everyone safe, but we are under enormous pressure."

Vaccination against COVID-19 is available to staff working in hospital units, but not yet outside of that context.

James Hughes, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, said that when staff are vaccinated against the coronavirus, it will be possible to increase capacity to accommodate homeless people who need a safe place to spend the night.

That indoor accommodation has become even more critical as the province prepares for four more weeks of curfew.

This past weekend Montreal shelters were full, said Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watts, with 500 women and men each night just at Welcome Hall Mission's own shelters.

“Let's call it 100 per cent,” he said. “That's something that we kind of anticipated, but one of the concerns that we have is where does this go to? And will we need to expand?" 

The outbreak has bigger consequences, as well, as some homeless Montrealers prefer not to go to a shelter, even under the threat of hefty fines for being out after curfew. With many shelters dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19, some feel safer on the street. 

“A lot of people don't want to go to the shelter because they don't want to catch COVID, so it's really, really worrisome,” said Jessica Quijano, a coordinator at the Native Women’s Shelter. 

Staff at a number of shelters and day centres say that people experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 for several reasons. They say physical distancing is challenging in shelters where space is limited, and homeless people tend not to seek treatment until they are seriously ill. 

While Montreal has taken steps to create more shelter space for those with COVID-19, including converting the old Royal Victoria Hospital into a red zone, Quijano said the measures came too late. 

“It’s something like between 60 and 80 per cent of positive cases. There’s been a lot of workers that have tested positive, so that’s very worrisome,” she said.

“There’s some people I work with that are hospitalized. There are people that are probably going to die.”

--With files from The Canadian Press 

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