Temporary shelter offers homeless Inuit in Montreal protection from COVID-19
“We are working very hard to prevent an outbreak”
The City of Montreal and the regional health board have teamed up to open a temporary overflow shelter for Indigenous residents to protect them from falling sick with COVID-19.
“We are working very hard to prevent an outbreak. There are so many health and housing issues, but we are working really, really hard to make sure it’s not happening,” said Heather Johnston, the executive director of Projets Autochtones du Québec, which runs the temporary shelter, as well as a permanent shelter downtown.
The new shelter opened on April 25 at 1825 Notre-Dame W.
“It was slow to get off the ground, but the city and the province have really made huge efforts to take care of this population,” Johnston said.
The shelter, located in the Little Burgundy sports centre, has 40 beds.
The beds are set up two metres apart and separated by wall dividers on three sides. There are also five rooms for couples.
While the shelter doesn’t ask too many questions about its clients’ origins, about 40 per cent are Inuit, Johnston said.
That’s about the same percentage as at the PAQ’s other permanent shelter, which had to reduce its capacity during the pandemic to allow for social distancing measures.
The temporary shelter opens at 2 p.m. and closes at 10 a.m. for a thorough four-hour cleaning. Before coming in, clients have to go through screening to ensure they’re not sick with COVID-19.
That means answering questions about smoker’s coughs and asthma histories.
Louisa Killiktee, the shelter’s frontline Inuit worker, is on hand to help.
“And if you come to the shelter, we can figure out if you need to have a test for COVID-19,” Johnston said.
But going for a COVID-19 test is not always easy if you are homeless and don’t speak English. It’s a big bureaucracy, she said, and “for someone whose English isn’t great, you may struggle to navigate.”
Some shelter clients come back from testing centres and are not even sure if they actually had a test, she said—but homeless individuals who are tested for COVID-19 are directed to hotels to await results.
So far, to her knowledge, there have been no COVID-19 cases reported at Montreal shelters.
Maintaining social distancing at the shelter still remains difficult, but “if you don’t have a home, you cannot socially isolate,” as public health officials recommend, Johnston said.
The importance of hygiene is emphasized at the shelter. There’s a hand-washing station at the door and everything gets cleaned throughout the day and after the shelter is closed, she said.
“There are seven people on site at all times who wipe as they move around. Only one person is allowed in at a time to the bathroom and then it’s cleaned immediately,” she added.
When the shelter is closed, women can go to the day shelter, Chez Doris, which supplies lunch, clean clothing and advice.
A shuttle service takes them from Chez Doris on Chomedey St. back to the shelter at 2 p.m.
“There is a lot of money going into this,” Johnston said, adding that the cleaning costs thousands of dollars to maintain.
“It would be nice to see some of it diverted to find more permanent solutions for housing and support.”
As it is, the shelter is a temporary solution and will only remain open until schools in the Greater Montreal area reopen on May 19. Then it will be closed or possibly moved to another location, Johnston said.