Issue 17: What about the homeless?

From self-isolation to regular hand washing, dealing with COVID-19 requires many basic resources that are incompatible with the experience of homelessness 

Today’s briefing is by Erika Moyer (EM), a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. Her work experience includes three years in Inter-American Affairs at the International Committee of the Red Cross, followed by environmental policy in Latin America at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She is riding out the pandemic in Montreal.

RESTEZ CHEZ VOUS/STAY AT HOME has become as common in Quebec as Bonjour-Hi. Montrealers have been largely heeding these words since COVID-19 hit the province,  but where does this leave our 3000 fellow citizens without a home? 

The pandemic has laid bare global societal inequalities regarding access to healthcare, who delivers essential services, and our collective financial vulnerability. The conversation has shifted to introducing longer-lasting social supports.  With Spain taking steps to implement a permanent universal basic income, Canada’s own CERB program looks like a partial UBI, albeit with imperfect coverage. What our current moment demonstrates is that decision-makers can no longer ignore Canada’s housing crisis. In Montreal, the rental vacancy has dropped to 1.5 percent and there is heightened concern that the housing shortage coupled with job losses and financial insecurity will result in pandemic-induced homelessness. 

The impact of COVID-19 on the homeless community in Montreal could be catastrophic. Individuals experiencing homelessness face social barriers that mean they can’t protect themselves from contracting the virus. Housing vulnerability is associated with increased likelihood of other health problems, risk factors known to exacerbate the death toll. Public health officials have stressed the importance of handwashing, but following this simple advice is not an option for many experiencing homelessness. Though essential information and health directives has been broadcast widely, access to the internet and television is not a guarantee. Keeping on top of the pandemic requires many basic resources that are incompatible with the experience of homelessness. 

On March 23, Montreal police informed a client outside of the Mission Old Brewery, a resource for those experiencing homelessness, that he had tested positive for the virus. Public protocol follows that following a positive diagnosis, individuals must immediately self-isolate. However, while results were pending, this man continued to access shelter services and interact with staff.  If a symptomatic person is unable to shelter in place while waiting for test results, the risk of public transmission grows immensely. 

The City of Montreal has begun making vacant hotel rooms available to allow those awaiting test results. This solution is a good start but remains imperfect. Several people have been turned away either because they had a pet or require addictions treatment and support that is incompatible with the facilities on offer. 

In Quebec, common places to find shelter or a washroom, including public libraries, gyms, and cafes are closed until May 4. Demand for community and shelter space grows as the public sphere remains inaccessible. Increased shelter use makes the threat of viral transmission more likely because social distancing is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. A secure home and the ability to social distance is a luxury many cannot afford.  

Public space is already limited for those experiencing homelessness and there have been multiple accounts of homeless Montrealers receiving fines of nearly $1,600 for violating physical distancing rules. The policing of social distancing orders is haphazard enough, and police must exercise even better judgment when dealing with vulnerable populations. 

Support for people experiencing homelessness is a matter of equity. As a society, we must protect our most vulnerable- now more than ever, not only to limit the transmission of COVID-19  but to safeguard those living on the economic fringes. Decisions taken now reflect broader societal values. A housing-first strategy, which offers permanent, affordable housing, for individuals experiencing homelessness, is the first critical step to addressing all other social and economic problems within the community. Hotel rooms may be a reasonable stop-gap for now, but longer-term solutions must start from a housing-first standpoint. 

Actions Taken To Date

On March 26, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante declared a state of emergency in order to provide aid to homeless people and prevent the spread of the virus. The downtown YMCAs were turned into welcome centres for homeless people that were turned away from overflowed shelters. 

Montreal has acted swiftly to support vulnerable citizens. The old Royal Victoria hospital, which has been a temporary homeless shelter during winters, is now being converted into a COVID-19 unit for those waiting to be tested and those infected by the virus. Dr. Mylène Drouin, regional director of public health, has also said that more resources are being offered: 35 beds are being allocated at Notre Dame Hospital. Public health authorities have also reported that nurses are available for frontline homeless shelters to triage those who may be displaying symptoms. 

For his part, Director of Mission Old Brewery, Matthew Pearce, is calling for shelters to have increased personal protective equipment and on-site testing.He also requested public health authorities work with homeless-serving agencies to ensure health interventions are appropriate for the community.

Similarly, Nakuset, the co-founder of Resilience Day Centre, has urged authorities to turn the centre into a testing site, but cautioned that there are distinct challenges in contacting clients experiencing homelessness while they await results.  Nakuset has also appealed for food donations and support from public health authorities to keep everyone safe. 

Municipal authorities have responded fairly quickly to address immediate challenges, but the systemic issues of housing insecurity and economic vulnerability remain unchanged. The virus affects all Montrealers, but especially those experiencing homelessness. Public health authorities must listen to the community, its advocates and commit to a housing-first strategy post-crisis.  (EM)

Related: Dozens die as the virus hits packed NYC homeless shelters

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim (bios here). If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca