Montreal applauded for opening facility for homeless, but critics say easier testing needed

Heather Johnston opens the door to what is usually the Little Burgundy sports centre in southwest Montreal.

“Welcome, come on in,” she says. “We’ll keep our 2 metres distance!”

The most vigourous activity happening here these days is handwashing, which Johnston does at the station that sits in the foyer.

Posted at her eye level is a sign in Inuktitut telling her to wash her hands for 20 seconds.

Johnston is the executive director of Projets Autochtones du Quebec (PAQ), Montreal’s only overnight shelter for Indigenous homeless people.

She says the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult on her staff, and perhaps most of all, her clients.

“During the COVID crisis we’ve reduced the number of beds by 50 percent and we’ve done that simply because we needed fewer people in a very small space, in order to respect social distancing. So every night we were turning away up to…some nights, 20 people,” Johnston says.

For Johnston and the folks who use PAQ, this idle sports centre is a godsend.

Not only does it provide 40 beds when PAQ fills up, there are showers, a vigilant cleaning staff, and intervention workers who are familiar to the Indigenous homeless community.

Perhaps most important to Johnston is that the new shelter has space and staff to accommodate intoxicated individuals who might not otherwise be allowed into other shelters, as well as a shuttle to bring them to Little Burgundy sports centre.

“They’ve made a huge investment here, to make sure that the homeless community, the Montreal Indigenous homeless community, has got a place to shelter, to find a hot meal, and to practice social distancing and they should really be congratulated,” says Johnston.

Montreal is the epicenter of Quebec’s fight to stop the spread of the novel corona virus that causes COVID-19.

As of this posting, the city has 13,979 positive cases out of the province’s total of 28,648, which is by far, the highest in the country. There have been 1,245 deaths in Montreal due to the virus.

Johnston also says Montreal’s initial response to protecting the homeless from the pandemic was slow.

And other front line workers still feel that way.

The Open Door shelter has been asking public health authorities to bring onsite testing to their day shelter for weeks.

They say their clientele, about a third of whom are Inuit, have had bad experiences with the health care system.

And are reluctant to go to hospitals to get tested.

“We had social workers that come in, we have nurses that come in, so why not this? What’s the big deal about getting tested?” asks Mélodie Racine, director of the Open Door.

The public health authority for south central Montreal was unable to give an interview to APTN News.

However in an email they said that the homeless are one of their “prioritized groups” for testing but that, “It is not recommended right now by public health to test asymptomatic people or to proceed to systematic testing.”

John Tessier is a long time intervention worker at the Open Door. He thinks the city has been guilty of wasting money on projects such as outdoor rest areas for homeless that were rarely used, when those resources could be put to better use.

“It’s misdirected, you know the people who, in my opinion, know very little about homelessness are making decisions for homeless people instead of putting their trust in people who are intimately acquainted with the homeless population,” says Tessier.

Heather Johnston says having testing come to the shelters would be a big step to providing a safer place for clients and staff.

But she does credit the city for providing other services, such as taxi vouchers to take people to test sites and hotel rooms for people waiting for results.

“Mobile testing I would say would be the cherry on top that we may or may not get,” says Johnston.

During a Friday afternoon press conference Quebec’s Public Health Minister Dr. Horacio Arruda said the province intends to more than double testing across the province, from 6,000 to 14,000 tests a day.

But as of now there’s no plan to bring it directly to the shelters.

Producer Nouvelles Nationales d'APTN - Montreal

Born and raised in Montreal, Tom cut his teeth working in community television in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory before joining APTN as a cameraman/editor in 2008. In 2015 he was promoted to Video Journalist and has since helped cover important stories such as the Muskrat Falls protest in Labrador and anti-pipeline actions in North Dakota.