MONTREAL -- One set of numbers suggests Montreal was lucky during the first COVID-19 wave.

More than 700 of the city’s homeless people were tested for the virus, and only 21 have tested positive so far, with none needing serious hospital treatment.

But advocates for the homeless say they don’t want to count on luck in the future. Nor did those numbers stay low magically, they say. 

A series of emergency measures were put in place in March, creating overflow spaces to house the homeless. Some of those spaces are now disappearing, and those advocates say it’s crucial to think long-term, as far ahead as next winter.

“How do we set up something so that two good things happen? One is that we don't…have to panic,” says Sam Watts, the CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission. 

“Two is that we can ensure that somebody who is currently being looked after either in an overnight or temporary facility or whatever, that they don't end up back out on the street.”

People working in the field say they’re bracing for a second wave perhaps even more than the general population. Some of the public spaces they were allowed to use for overflow are now reopening for their intended purpose, making them off-limits.

With that in mind, shelters like the Welcome Hall Mission are trying to redesign their operations to maximize space in the future.

One place that they’re looking at using is the old Royal Victoria Hospital, which has been used as an overflow shelter during the colder months. 

But it didn't fill up as some thought it might when it was turned into a COVID-19 ward for the homeless. That’s led advocates to believe there should be enough space there to create a long-term plan there—enough space to keep separate those who do and do not have the virus. 

They also haven’t gotten all the support that may be available to them. Montreal shelters learned in late May that they’d only gotten a third of the federal emergency funding allocation sent to Quebec for the needs of the homeless, despite being the province’s biggest city by far.

As they try to sort out plans, however, they are realizing the first phase of emergency services gave them a head start in another way, too: it put them in touch with many more of Montreal’s homeless population, including people who don’t normally use shelters.

“This pandemic has given us one big advantage, and that is that we have connected with a population group that would not normally frequent one of our establishments,” said Watts.