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Lack of Shelters leads to “Worst-Case Scenario” for Unhoused People

Meals for Milton-Parc founder Sophie Hart explains how COVID-19 has impacted unhoused people in Montreal

Every harsh winter in Montreal presents an even more dangerous situation for those without stable shelter. This winter, as many homeless shelters have been forced to curtail capacity to prevent COVID-19 spread, conditions are even more dire. Some were shut down completely due to lack of resources to properly social distance and provide PPE for clients. One shelter that stayed open, The Open Door shelter, is only able to accept “33 peoples at the time,” the shelter’s director, Mélodie Racine, said in an interview. The limited capacity “means that a lot of people are forced to stay outside in the cold, without a secure place to be, access to services [like] food, clothing, showers, nurses, social workers” and more.   

While shelters are the only organizations able to provide many of those necessary services, fourth year McGill student, Sophie Hart, decided to help and address the communities’ needs. Hart founded the organization Meals for Milton-Parc in October 2020 in response to COVID-19 when many services available to unhoused peoples were reduced. In an interview with the Daily, she explained that she decided it was “time for students to step up as a community.” Meals for Milton-Parc is a community organization run by McGill students that acts as a meal program, delivering meals to unhoused peoples three times per week. Precautions against COVID-19 caused the organization to move from preparing home cooked meals toward distributing gift cards to local restaurants. The organization also delivers other essentials, like winter clothing.

As winter moved in, the temperatures dropped along with opportunities to avoid COVID-19 for unhoused peoples, who were safer and more socially distant when living in tents, but are now forced to go into the shelter system. Even before the pandemic, many people chose to avoid shelters due to experiencing abuse or other negative situations. Now, those worries have been combined with concerns of a COVID-19 outbreak. These concerns came to fruition in many cases, which Hart believes is directly associated with overcrowding of shelters and lack of ability to socially distance.

Hart believes a key part of the problems unhoused peoples face is due to government officials’ lack of foresight, with “everything being done in reacting to crises [yet] no planning to avoid crises.” Hart explains that this negligence has led to a “worst case scenario in a lot of different situations,” combining COVID-19 with an already not-functioning system.  

Advocate groups for unhoused individuals have been working to create more shelter space, something that is made even more difficult by social distancing requirements and lack of personal protective equipment for clients.

Proposals began to trickle in. First, the aid organization CARE Montreal is providing unhoused people needing protection from the cold with a durable, tent-like structure called an Iglou.  Iglous provide shelter from the freezing temperatures; an alternative for when shelters are inevitably at capacity, or if individuals are concerned about COVID-19 risks that come with shelters’ close quarters. The distribution of the Iglous is taking place thanks to workers from CARE Montreal, who visit and offer Iglous to people who they know are living outdoors. The workers also check in, ensuring the Iglous are functioning properly for those using them. If all goes well with the Iglou shelters, CARE Montreal founder and director, Michel Monette, plans on ordering more, and hopes to begin building similar portable shelters locally in Montreal.

Next, two hotels – Hotel Place Dupuis and Hotel Universel – are welcoming anyone in need of a place to stay, as long as they can provide a negative COVID-19 test. Hotel Universel is also accommodating unhoused people recovering from COVID-19 who transferred from the Old Royal Victoria Hospital, opening up more hospital beds while ensuring the patients remain with a place of shelter.

While these increases in available shelters are encouraging, there are still many people in need of housing. Finding a place to stay warm is hard enough without the added restrictions put into place by the new COVID-19 regulations.  Not only do the new laws forbid anyone to leave their home after 8:00 P.M., but it simultaneously prohibits anyone from remaining in shelters after 9:30 P.M., putting unhoused people in an impossible situation.  

Advocates voicing concerns over Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s disregard for unhoused people were readily dismissed by Legault, who claimed that exempting unhoused people from the curfew would lead to Quebecers pretending to be homeless to evade fines for breaking curfew. Six people without shelter were fined in the first week of the curfew alone, according to the advocacy group RAPSIM.

Legault allowed the curfew to continue for two weeks without exemptions for unhoused people. That was until Raphael André, an unhoused Innu man unable to stay the night in a shelter due to COVID-19 restrictions, froze to death in a portable toilet. Although the exact cause of death is not yet confirmed, advocates for André maintain that he died due to the cold after public health directives forced residents out of the nearby Open Door shelter, due to the restricted hours imposed by the government. The case was brought to court by the Clinique Juridique Itinérante, a legal organization advocating for unhoused people, arguing that already-vulnerable people were put at risk by the curfew. Justice Masse ruled in their favour, exempting people without housing from the curfew order, assenting unhoused people’s “lives, security and health were being put in danger.”

If you’re interested in becoming more involved: 

Meals for Milton Parc is always looking for volunteers on a rolling basis, fill out volunteer application here.

Other organizations with volunteer openings: Innovation Assistance, Resilience Montreal, The Open Door, Nazareth CommunityMTL Aid, as well as many of the organizations mentioned above are taking donations.