COVID-19 has taken people to the streets and made the lives of the homeless harder


MONTREAL – The COVID-19 crisis has led people to the streets. In Cabot Square, in downtown Montreal, an organization that works with the homeless says it sees new faces day after day. And the virus has complicated the already very difficult life of the homeless.

In Oly, COVID-19 took away his main source of money: he collected bottles and cans and collected pennies in return. At the worst of the pandemic, this was no longer possible when grocery stores and convenience stores no longer took them back for health reasons.

The young man who shows off colorful tattoos has had to manage otherwise and comes to eat at Cabot Square, located at the corner of Atwater and Sainte-Catherine streets, among other things.

On Wednesday, Red Cross workers were there to distribute food. In recent weeks, they have taken over, at the request of the city of Montreal.

Before them, the community organization Resilience Montreal distributed countless meals. His team is still present in the park, and distributes clothing, as well as disinfectant and masks so that the homeless can also protect themselves from the virus.

Another problem experienced on a daily basis by the homeless during this period of COVID-19? Find a restroom. The closure of shopping centers and restaurants has deprived them of toilets, but also of places to shelter from the rain, bad weather or buy a cheap coffee. Most are now reopened, but the security guards who control the entrances are discouraging.

Here in the park are the only public outdoor toilets between Atwater and Peel Street – 1.5 km further – said a 48-year-old man, whom his friends call “the Che” because of his beard.

And then, a lot of services for the homeless ended abruptly because of the virus. A nearby church that fed those in need has closed, he said.

“Le Che” is a regular at Cabot Square. At the start of the crisis, in March and April, there were a lot more people than usual – and more resources to help them too, he says.

“But now it has diminished. There’s not enough”.

At the height of the pandemic, Resilience Montreal had as many as 20 blue tents that housed workers, food and the homeless, in the melting spring ice. There is only one left.

The health crisis has hit already vulnerable people hard. David Chapman, the coordinator of Resilience Montreal, sees it on the ground.

“I see new faces every day in the park. Some who had jobs have lost them and are getting there after having used up all their money. Those who live from paycheck to paycheck, ”he explained in the middle of the square, wearing the orange armband that identifies the stakeholders.

The organization’s premises are too small to accommodate all those who need them, while respecting the rules of physical distancing. In order not to escape anyone, they established their headquarters in Cabot Square.

“Being in the park allowed us to reach people better. We can help more. And since we have more space, it’s safer ”.

Rain or shine, we’ve been here since March.

In addition to giving away masks, workers take the opportunity to offer homeless people advice to prevent the spread of the disease and accompany them to clinics to get tested for COVID-19. They must stay put, in a hotel, until they receive the results, explained Chapman.

Strangely, the illness has given some stability to some, who have had clean rooms during this time, he said, while he offers cigarettes to men who have come to ask for them.

He believes their efforts, combined with those of health officials and the city, have paid off: Only one person connected to this park has contracted COVID-19, he said.

He is sorry, however, at the pressure from residents, who did not welcome the influx into the park in April. Around, the towers of condos for a well-heeled clientele are on the rise.

But if you force people to leave the park and go back under the bridges, they’re not going to sanitize their hands, he points out. Even if their presence inconvenienced some, “it caused less harm than the alternative”, judges the community worker.

Like the others we met at the Square, “Che” is not worried about catching COVID-19.

“Here, the people of the street, they don’t worry too much about it”. We have seen others, ”he said.

However, he was tested twice, when he had to go to the hospital for other health problems.

Marc has been tested three times. He wasn’t sick, but “we can have it and be asymptomatic, you know?” Besides that, COVID hasn’t changed anything in his life. “But I don’t share my cigarettes anymore,” said the man with the wrinkled face and elegant white mustache.

In the park, people were socializing, drinking coffee. They do not all wear face coverings and some touch each other while talking.

Raising awareness of the risks posed by COVID among homeless people and encouraging them to practice distancing has presented challenges, said David Chapman.

“They are used to living in a constant state of uncertainty. The homeless population is used to a high level of risk. They saw their friends die of overdoses or of cold under a bridge ”.

It’s just one more thing in their life, he explains, handing out smiles and “fist bums”.

The summer temperature gave a break. But temporary shelters gradually ceased to operate over the summer. Homeless people are worried about the fall and a second wave of COVID that will close places where they could find a little respite.

Stéphanie Marin, The Canadian Press

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