Even before the pandemic, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation proposed that a group of nurses be called a “compassion.” And since January, compassions have been a regular sight at the shelter I run in downtown Montreal. Every five days or so, with their laptops and super swabs, a half-dozen nurses in full scrubs have been conducting COVID‑19 testing of the people we serve at the Old Brewery Mission. They’ve also been vaccinating them on site. A second jab for most is due soon, and it almost feels like we’ve wrestled the virus to the ground. But I’ve felt this way before.
Back in March 2020, the original mesures d’hygiène were imposed on all Montreal shelters. We had to reduce the number of beds by about half to permit safe distancing in the dorms and cafeterias. Arenas and hotels had to be appropriated and staffed to accommodate those disinvited from our facilities. TV rooms and common areas were shuttered. Temperature taking at admission slowed operations considerably. And Plexiglas was installed everywhere. I’m convinced we have more “plexi” at the Old Brewery than does the entire Bell Centre.
With fewer people and more emphasis on cleanliness, the sounds and smells have changed. Our shelter — normally cacophonous and punctuated with bursts of tension, anger, and frustration — became quiet, even solemn. Instead of sitting shoulder to shoulder, people ate their meals with lots of elbow room and opaque views of their neighbours through plasticized separators. And as those in the homelessness universe know, shelters have their own particular odour. That familiar smell hasn’t exactly vanished, but it has dissipated greatly. We’re more akin to a manufacturing plant than to our old self.
Throughout much of last year, the quiet and the calm belied the anxiety. Everyone was waiting for outbreaks (éclosions). After all, unhoused Montrealers were obviously among the most vulnerable to infection. Surely, communal settings put them and the staff who serve them at heightened risk.
We kept waiting, but the outbreaks never came. It appeared our collective measures had succeeded. In spring 2020, the Old Brewery was tasked with operating the COVID isolation facility at the old Royal Vic, and business was hardly brisk. The odd positive case was detected but nothing unmanageable. Rumours circulated that most homeless people were somehow immune to the virus because of their gritty constitutions. I crowed in radio interviews that we could count the cases among our clients on two hands.
As pandemic preparations got under way, the first tent cities popped up in Montreal. The biggest, the campement Notre-Dame, was 300 strong in a park across from the Molson Brewery, in the East End. Places like Toronto, Vancouver, and Edmonton know tent cities well, but not Montreal. Our renter-oriented, lower-cost housing sector once accommodated almost all low-income people. That was before the virus undermined the market. When I first visited the campement, I saw a poster that read, “Affordable Housing, Not Shelters.” COVID had made this aspiration far less likely.
December came, and a few positive cases turned into dozens. Then into hundreds (including my own mild case). The Royal Vic was overwhelmed. Warming stations closed. Admissions to many shelters, including the Old Brewery, were halted. The Red Cross was called in. People didn’t know where to go. Hospitalizations were few, but one of our staff members was in the ICU for weeks. As COVID raged across Montreal, François Legault imposed an 8 p.m. curfew and another layer of complexity on the lives of those without permanent housing. The nadir came on January 18 of this year, when Raphael André, a man of Innu heritage, was found dead in a portable toilet outside one of the city’s warming stations. A sense of shared failure blanketed the sector. Homeless people really were as vulnerable as we originally thought.
The front-line organizations had had enough. A muscular media campaign was organized to advocate for homeless people to get priority in vaccination, and the government actually listened. It was quite a sight to see: in the dead of a Montreal winter, hundreds had lined up at the Grand Quai, a day centre run by the Accueil Bonneau in the Old Port. Standing two metres apart, they were not there for admission, a meal, or a shower. They had come for a nurse-administered needle. And then a judge lifted the curfew for our clientele.
With the odd blip, we gradually saw the number of positive cases come down. The Red Cross closed its temporary facility in March. We even closed one of the floors at the Royal Vic. But vigilance is one of our watchwords. Nervousness is another. We won’t be lured into a false sense of security again. Talk of a variant-driven fourth wave echoes throughout the shelter. Even with the vaccines, enhanced handwashing, masking, and distancing measures are here to stay, at least for a while.
The greatest gift of COVID would be the acknowledgement that, for people living on the street, in shelters, and in the campements, the best vaccine against a pandemic is not a shot from Pfizer or Moderna but affordable permanent housing. It’s going to take a lot more than a compassion of nurses for that to happen any time soon.