'Not one dollar, not one bar of soap, not one pair of hands': Advocates for homeless grow desperate

People who work with Indigenous people living on the streets of Montreal say they're feeling abandoned by governments working to keep a lid on the spread of COVID-19.

"We have received nothing — not one dollar, not one bar of soap, not one extra pair of hands," said Allison Reid, executive director of the Montreal Indigenous Community NETWORK. 

Reid said she knows there are many people at all levels of government who are trying to address the needs of homeless Indigenous people.

But two weeks after the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a global pandemic, no help has come through.

Resilience day centre overwhelmed

With service providers unable to enforce the directive that clients keep a safe distance from one another, some shelters have been left with little choice but to close or reduce the number of people they allow in. 

That's the situation at Resilience Montreal, a day centre that operates next to where many homeless people tend to congregate, at Cabot Square.

Simon Martel/CBC

With the province on pause, more and more people in need of services are showing up at Resilience, looking for help, said the co-manager, Nakuset.

"Nobody is allowed to enter buildings anymore. There's no place for these people to go," Nakuset said.

Overwhelmed, Resilience Montreal has been forced to close, in order to avoid becoming a place where the novel coronavirus is spread.

Staff moved tables and chairs into Cabot Square to serve food and warm drinks, and intervention workers provided counselling and information about the pandemic. But Nakuset said more has to happen.

"It's not enough to just hand someone a sandwich and tell them, 'Good luck with that.' But that's pretty much what is happening here."

Many don't understand what's going on. Some are minimizing it, she said, while others think it's the end of the world. 

"We want someplace that they can go and self-isolate, that they can get out of the elements, that can be a safe place for them," Nakuset said.

Simon Martel/Radio-Canada

Volunteers not stepping up

The City of Montreal said finding ways to protect people living on the street is a major preoccupation.

"We are working to accompany the Resilience centre at Cabot Square, to respond to the basic needs of vulnerable people," said Laurence Houde-Roy, a spokesperson for Mayor Valérie Plante, in an emailed statement Thursday evening.

"We are working right now on opening other places in short order."

She said 24 public washrooms have been installed around the city, so that people will have a place to wash up. Other measures are being worked on.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

In his daily briefing Thursday, Quebec Premier François Legault encouraged people in a position to volunteer in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis to come forward, providing the link to a website to get people with time on their hands to volunteer at places such as food banks.

But advocates for the homeless say so far, volunteers are scarce.

They are appealing for donations of blankets, warm clothes and food.

Reid of Montreal Indigenous Community NETWORK said her group is looking for people to cook large pots of soups, chili, spaghetti sauce — even prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made on soft bread.

It's a call for help that Reid said she would never make in normal circumstances.

"We would never ask people to make food in their homes and donate to our centres," said Reid. "But the risks are far too great already, and we really just need any help we can get."