The heads of several Montreal homeless shelters say they're facing a crisis, as rising staff absences due to COVID-19 threaten to disrupt services during the coldest part of winter.

There were outbreaks in 27 Montreal homeless shelters between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, with a total of 110 staff and clients testing positive during that time, according to the local health authority in the city's south end.

Michel Monette, the general director of CARE Montreal, says the city is "on the brink of a humanitarian crisis."

Almost 30 per cent of his employees are currently off the job because of a positive COVID-19 test, and up to 25 per cent of shelter users have tested positive, he said in an interview Thursday. While he's managed to keep all the shelter's beds open for now, he says he'll have to close dozens if the situation worsens, and he has already had to stop offering other services, including psychosocial care.

"Shelters are at capacity; our users and employees are getting sick," he said. "I have three, four employees each day being diagnosed positive. It's not stopping."

Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission, says the 108-bed hotel that the city requisitioned for COVID-19-positive homeless people is already full, leaving shelters wondering what to do with people who test positive.

Watts, however, said his biggest concern is staff shortages. While his own organization has fared well so far, he said may smaller shelters have had to scale back because of outbreaks, which he said puts more stress on the system overall.

He said he fears a major outbreak that would force services to be interrupted at any one of the three biggest shelters in the city — a situation he says would be "catastrophic."

"You would not be overstating it to say that the situation is on a razor's edge in Montreal with respect to the ability to serve," he said in an interview Thursday.

Watts said shelters are doing everything they can to keep staff safe by using masking, deploying rapid tests, asking people to reduce contacts and arranging COVID-19 booster shot clinics. He said the vaccination rate among workers at his organization is high, which may have helped it avoid the worst so far.

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Nakuset, who uses one name and is the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, says her organization has also been lucky to have had few cases of COVID-19 so far this winter. The shelter decided in late December not to accept any new clients because of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus — a measure she hopes to lift soon.

However, she says it's hard to operate when the city has provided fewer emergency resources this year compared with a year ago, adding that this year's challenges are greater.

"We have more cases, more homeless people than last year, less services," she said in an interview Wednesday.

Nakuset said she had to raise funds to keep open a warming tent this season that was opened last year after a homeless Indigenous man died outside on a freezing night after a nearby shelter closed. She said she learned that six staff members at that tent have tested positive for COVID-19.

"We're just doing it day by day and trying to figure out how to balance everything and keep people safe and not closing down," she said.

While the City of Montreal recently announced it had requisitioned two hotels to allow COVID-positive people to isolate, Nakuset says one isn't for families with children, adding that the other only opens in February. Last year, she said the city opened more temporary shelters, including one in Old Montreal's Bonsecours Market.

In an email, a spokeswoman for Mayor Valérie Plante's cabinet said Thursday the city was evaluating sites for more emergency shelters.

"We have never shied away from responding to the needs of the most vulnerable and we will leave no one behind," the statement read, noting that the city had doubled the budget dedicated to fighting homelessness in 2022.

But Watts and Monette both noted that beds alone won't solve the problem, since shelters need staff to supervise them.

Watts said that while emergency services are needed, there ultimately needs to be a wider reform of how services are delivered in the city. That includes a co-ordinated intake system to help address people's diverse health and shelter needs, rather than a "disparate collection" of under-resourced groups providing services to the most vulnerable.

The provincial government, Watts added, needs to implement a rent-supplement program, which he said would help get more people into apartments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2022.

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