Montreal homeless shelters say clients, workers need access to vaccine as COVID-19 cases spike

People line-up at a hotel for the homeless before the 8 p.m. COVID-19 curfew Monday, January 11, 2021 in Montreal. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s stronghold over Montreal, four organizations devoted to helping those without a home are sounding the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus among clients and workers who help them.

The Old Brewery Mission, Welcome Hall Mission, Maison du Père and Accueil Bonneau are calling on the Quebec government to step in and protect those who live on the street by giving them access to the vaccine.

“Our message is that it’s very very clear that homeless people not just in Montreal but right across the province, and the staff who serve them have to be in the next wave of vaccines,” James Hughes, president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, told Global News on Tuesday.

“We have to do that to prevent further COVID-19 cases in the homeless population as well as to make sure we can increase the capacity of our facilities so we can accommodate everyone, including those who don’t have COVID-19 all the way through winter.”

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READ MORE: Quebec’s coronavirus hospitalizations jump as province adds 1,934 new cases, 47 deaths

There have been 96 new cases among homeless Montrealers since the holiday season, according to the group. This is compared to 21 confirmed cases among the same population from March to December 2020.

The organizations maintain homeless people in Montreal and the workers on the front lines who assist them should be added to the priority list for vaccination. As it stands, they say the vaccine is only available to employees from shelters who work at the former Royal Victoria Hospital.

“Vaccination is the first line of defence against a pandemic,” Fiona Crossling, executive director of Accueil Bonneau, said in a statement. “Our staff are doing their best to keep everyone safe, but we’re under tremendous pressure.”

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When asked about securing doses for the homeless, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Health Ministry said in an email the vaccination campaign remains “focused” on two priority groups: residents in long-term care homes (CHSLDs) and health-care employees.

“Work on the details of subsequent prioritization is underway at the ministry,” the spokesperson wrote.

As of Tuesday, Quebec has given a total of 99,510 doses since the campaign got underway last month. Health authorities say no one in the province has so far received a second dose.

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Coronavirus: Quebec official discusses amnesty for homeless community, workers during curfew – Jan 7, 2021

Local shelters brimming in Montreal

The demand from the organizations comes as most homeless shelters in the city are at capacity, or close to it.

They say their clients are at greater risk of contracting the virus because those places are packed, with little room for physical distancing. Many homeless Montrealers also suffer from medical issues and don’t seek help until they are seriously ill, the group says.

Overcrowding is further compounded by the newly-imposed nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19. With few exceptions, Quebecers must be home from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. every night until Feb. 8.

READ MORE: Montreal homeless advocates call for amnesty when it comes to COVID-19 curfew

Advocates have argued the measure disproportionately affects vulnerable populations while the government has said those who live on the street won’t be targeted. Montreal police said Monday they stopped 122 homeless people in relation to the curfew, but only gave one ticket during an arrest that was related to drugs.

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Québec solidaire parliamentary leader Manon Massé said that she has asked the premier to adjust the decree, so the curfew does not apply to the homeless.

“The premier’s team has also asked for my help in order to identify shelters in need of additional resources. That’s good because in Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques, we know which ones they are,” Massé said in a Facebook post. “But why is it that they didn’t think about this before issuing the decree for the curfew? It’s not for nothing that we proposed having a ‘field unit’: evidently, the information on the field is not getting to the crisis unit!”

The curfew the first of its kind during the pandemic in Canada also prompted a demonstration Monday night in downtown Montreal, where advocates for vulnerable citizens called for more resources to help those who are homeless or marginalized.

— With files from Global News’ Gloria Henriquez, Dan Spector and The Canadian Press