While people around the world are told to stay home to prevent the spread of Covid-19, what is happening to those without a home? The pandemic has made life harder for homeless Indigenous populations – in Montreal, for instance, the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal was forced to close for the first time since its founding.
The shelter was emptied May 14 after half of its 14 staff members and a few residents tested positive for the coronavirus. The seven women and three children living there at the time were moved to a hotel until the shelter is cleaned and disinfected. They hope to return by June 1.
“At least now they’re in a safe location and in about a week they’ll be back,” said Nakuset, the shelter’s executive director. “We’ll be better prepared the second time around. I really thought we were doing such an excellent job. It all changed so quickly – it was scary.”
Since Covid hit the country, staff who were pregnant or who had health conditions were told to stay home. The rest were divided into two groups. While the first core group operated the shelter, the second would self-isolate unless infections occurred. After the first core started getting sick May 4, the second group was called in and started catching the virus immediately.
As the shelter was reduced to a skeletal staff, Nakuset was working at Resilience Montreal, the day shelter where she now spends most of her time. This was when social worker colleagues Emily Brunton and Simon Beauregard from CIUSSS (integrated university health and social services centres) suggested the women could be moved to a safe hotel with intervention workers and security.
Still, Nakuset was reluctant to close and asked their organization for additional staff, a cleaning crew, testing capabilities and even some armed forces personnel – if an Elders home could receive this assistance, she reasoned, why couldn’t the shelter?
Nakuset said that the CIUSSS agreed to all her requests on the phone May 4, only to completely reverse course hours later.
CIUSSS supervisor Annie Arevian helped arrange for the women to be moved later that day. Resilience project manager David Chapman transferred the residents in his van. After a stop at the testing site, they were brought to the hotel where they have been isolated ever since.
“It was a real gift because our staff were freaking out,” said Nakuset. “They were getting really upset about all their colleagues getting sick. One transmitted it to her partner. The women were scared watching all the staff get sick and all the staff were tired of being in a pressure cooker for the last couple of months.”
Nakuset said that protective supplies were slow to arrive from public health, adding that there had been previous instances of CIUSSS promising something on the phone before later writing that it wasn’t possible. To further complicate matters, she noted, CIUSSS and public health have contradictory guidelines for employees returning to work.
“Workers who tested positive were told by the CIUSSS you cannot go back to work until you have two negative test results,” said Nakuset. “Public health is saying 14 days plus another 48 hours of no symptoms. The staff are like, ‘Who do I listen to?’”
One staff member’s recent test revealed he was still positive, but he was told he wasn’t contagious and “should be okay” to return to work. Some staff are electing to take extended leaves rather than endure more uncomfortable tests, which involve having a swab inserted deep into the nose and throat.
Covid-19 testing has become relatively common at Resilience, which has been operating outdoors at Cabot Square since March 26, across the street from its usual building. Faced with a huge overflow when other organizations closed during the pandemic, it was impossible to maintain safe distancing inside.
True to their name, Resilience swiftly set up tables in the square to serve food and distribute clothes, blankets and other essential supplies. Staff have been outside with the predominantly homeless Indigenous population throughout the last cold months, providing support and up to 600 quality meals each day.
“It was heartbreaking to tell the clientele we had to close because they had heard it from other organizations and they love coming here,” Nakuset observed. “I think they enjoy having the intervention workers there so we’re all outside with them. It’s really devastating to see there hasn’t been much of a plan for this homeless population.”
Her team was also able to open a secondary rest centre at nearby Dawson College, where people will be able to sleep night or day until the end of June. Her next goal is to install outdoor showers with curtains and towels.
Nakuset is working with the CIUSSS and public health to plan the shelter’s reopening and is consulting with Architecture Sans Frontières to remodel the space according to Covid-19 best practices. She hopes staff will receive special training May 28 so the shelter can reopen June 1.