Montreal's hotel-shelter opens this week, giving residents rare, maybe life-changing, reprieve

Montreal’s new hotel-turned-shelter is open for business, more than a week ahead of schedule and just in time for the city’s first snowfall of the season.

And the people staying there over the coming months will get a respite, because of COVID-19, far beyond what they can usually expect.

“It's going to be a lot like a hotel,” said Sam Watts, the CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, which is running the temporary shelter at Hotel Place Dupuis until March 31.

“The bed linens will be changed ever second day, and the rooms will be cleaned every day.”

The huge 380-bed emergency shelter, housed in the hotel near Berri-UQAM, was only announced last week after the city struck a deal with the owners to use it during the pandemic.

But Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante tweeted Tuesday that the first beds are opening tonight, posting some photos from the interior.

Le centre d'hébergement d'urgence de l'Hôtel Place Dupuis ouvrira graduellement ce soir. Avec nos partenaires, nous mettons tout en place pour offrir aux personnes en situation d'itinérance un lieu chaud, sécuritaire et adapté à leurs besoins. #polmtl pic.twitter.com/s83XqSYTnj

— Valérie Plante (@Val_Plante) November 3, 2020

The shelter will open bit by bit, or rather floor by floor, which will also allow Welcome Hall Mission staff to avoid “one great big onslaught” by opening up such a big facility all at once, said Watts.

Still, he expects 50 to 100 people to sleep there tonight, he said—already more than the capacity of many shelters in Montreal.

The interior of the hotel looks much like it did when it accepted paying customers, though at the front desk there will be Welcome Hall Mission staff instead of concierges and hotel greeters.

The rooms also look much the same, and though the front-desk staff aren’t there, the hotel’s “back-end” staff, cleaners and maintenance workers, will keep their jobs, said Watts, as they care for the new clients despite the tourism downturn.

“The hotel was fabulous as well in making the kind of changes that will be necessary” for its conversion, said Watts.

“They’re quite concerned with the overall situation of homelessness in Montreal.”

The owners of Hotel Place Dupuis didn’t respond to a request for comment about their work getting the hotel ready or their decision to strike the deal with the city.

FOUR-STAR SURROUNDINGS

Each room will have two beds, with the two residents sharing the bathroom. In the smaller rooms, a partition has been put up between the beds, but in the bigger rooms that wasn’t necessary, since there was a lot of space between the beds, Watts said.

“It allows us to make use of what are some very large hotel rooms,” he said. “It’s a four-star hotel, it's very nice,” he said, calling the Welcome Hall Mission “very lucky” to be able to house people there.

Breakfast will be provided every day. The residents won’t have the use of any ensuite kitchens, or the hotel’s laundry facilities, since that would present problems, said Watts. But many day shelters offer washing machines they can use, Watts said.

However, almost as if they were regular hotel customers, the residents will generally be able to keep the same room from day to day, Watts said. It’s one of the “safety and health protocols” in place, he said.

To limit the spread of COVID-19, other rules will also be enforced: washing hands at the door, taking people’s temperatures at the door and other ways of screening for illness. There will be requirements around mask-wearing, Watts said.

Some people have said online that turning the hotel into the shelter will give it a lasting problem with bedbugs. Watts pointed out that even “the finest hotels” in the world have struggled with bedbugs, brought in by their well-heeled customers, but he said there are “extensive cleaning protocols” in place to keep the hotel in good shape.

'UNDERSTANDING A NEW NORMAL'

Getting semi-hotel treatment, even just for one winter or just for a few weeks, could make a real difference in the lives of people who normally suffer through Montreal winters in much rougher circumstances.

“One of the things that we know is that when people begin to experience something like a nice place to stay, that leads them towards understanding a new normal,” Watts said.

“One of the realities of life on the street is that after a while, and this sounds strange, you get used to it. This becomes your normal and other things start to look risky to you.”

The goal of the shelter is to help steer people into permanent housing, but their own willingness to make that leap plays a big part in the process, said Watts.

“Our job is to convince people that that's actually something that they really ought to consider and will really help them out,” he said.

But overall, times have changed, and shelters want to put people up in as much comfort as possible for many reasons, Watts said.

“One of the key things, and it's part of the DNA of Welcome Hall Mission, is dignity and respect,” Watts said. 

“Someone who is experiencing homelessness deserves to get treated like you and I would get treated. And for a lot of years that was not the case.”

In earlier eras, there was an idea that “if I tossed you a mattress on the floor of a cold basement somewhere…you should be happy with that,” he said. 

“Well, we don't think people should be happy with that.”

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