Montreal's homeless shelters say they are desperate for volunteers, with COVID-19 threatening to overwhelm the system as temperatures drop to extreme lows starting Monday night.
According to Montreal public health, 216 homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. In recent days, it's climbed to about 50 positive cases a day, with at least 23 known outbreaks in the community.
That's compared to last January, when there were 190 cases in the homeless population for the entire month.
Émilie Fortier, the head of emergency services at the Old Brewery Mission, said those outbreaks mean there's less spaces available for the homeless — both in shelters and in warming centres.
The need is urgent, as Montreal is set to enter an extreme cold snap, with temperatures dipping to bone-chilling –26 C Monday night. Environment Canada said it will feel like –38 C by early Tuesday morning, with "brisk" winds up to 20 km/h.
The problem is finding a safe place for those who test positive to self-isolate safely, while also accommodating those who don't have COVID-19. Fortier said that while the Mission has the space to house more people, it lacks the staffing to make it happen.
The city of Montreal previously requisitioned the Chrome Hotel downtown to be used by the homeless population for self-isolation, but it already has reached its maximum capacity.
"So workers end up improvising red zones within their [shelters and organizations], which is already a problem. And for those who don't have that option, the person winds up in the hospital and takes a bed there," Fortier explained.
"It's a vicious circle."
Montreal has used its state-of-emergency powers to requisition the indoor soccer stadium at 9235 Papineau Avenue to be used as a makeshift shelter for homeless people with COVID-19. The city says the stadium can accommodate 300 people.
The Chez Doris women's shelter operates its own hotel, but all of its 41 rooms are also full. Marina Boulos-Winton, the executive director, said the shelter has to turn six to 10 women away every night due to a lack of space.
Even then, she said the existing staff is stretched thin, without the volunteers who would normally serve meals and sort through donations.
"Everybody is looking for employees to work with homeless people, so we're competing against each other," she explained.
"[The city is] trying to requisition another hotel, but they're coming to our organizations to help them recruit [staff], but we're all recruiting people."
Getting help to where it's needed
A spokesperson for Lionel Carmant, Quebec's junior health minister, wrote in a statement to CBC that the Health and Social Services Ministry is "greatly concerned" by the situation.
"The meteoric rise in cases affects all settings, and shelters for people experiencing homelessness are no exception," they wrote.
The statement noted that the provincial government has already added 150 beds in Montreal since the beginning of the year, and that Carmant is in "regular contact" with the city and public health to work on solutions.
Montreal Public Health said it is working to identify and open new sites, saying the situation is "urgent and critical," but noted the lack of staff as an obstacle. It has also distributed rapid tests to shelters.
Public Health has also created a special, dedicated phone line for those who are interested in working in the homeless sector. Those who wish to apply are encouraged to reach out at 514-940-5216.