MONTREAL -- For the first time since its founding, the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal is closed.

Executive director Nakuset said she was forced to close the shelter, that provides a safe environment for Indigenous women, after a COVID-19 outbreak forced residents to temporarily be moved to a hotel, while the establishment can be cleaned and those infected can recover.

“I’ve never closed the shelter, and I didn’t want to close the shelter,” said Nakuset. “But I have to take care of the clients.”

Nakuset confirmed that seven of the 14 staff members had confirmed cases, but the shelter did not want to say if any residents tested positive for confidentiality reasons.

The closure and move came after multiple attempts to get local health and social services personnel to come test residents, and a frustrating ordeal getting assistance, according to Nakuset.

When the pandemic first began in March, shelter staff members were put in two core groups: one at home, and one at the shelter. Should any staff get sick in the first core, the second would replace the first.

“It was only around May 4 that staff started to feel sick,” said Nakuset. “We pulled out core 1, and stuck in core two, but then core two started to get sick.”

With half the staff in isolation, the shelter was operating with a skeletal staff of one at times.

Following the initial pandemic declaration, residents were told to stay in their rooms, communal meals were cancelled, and staff told residents to not leave the shelter. Nakuset said things went smoothly, but then the virus “hit hard.”

Meanwhile, equipment was very slow to arrive.

“Since the beginning, we have been asking public health to come in and give us face masks, gloves, disinfectants, give us all these things, and they were so slow to bring anything like that,” said Nakuset. “As a matter-of-fact, we got a lot of the stuff from community people.”

Nakuset said there were several issues with communication where someone at CIUSSS South Central would promise something on the phone, then reverse course in writing.

A spokesperson for the CIUSSS South Central acknowledged some confusion at the onset of the outbreak but said the shelter received the resources they needed. 

Nakuset spends her time at Resilience Montreal near Cabot Square and works with the shelter remotely. She said the ordeal has been discouraging, as requests continued to be denied.

She could not get tests for people at Cabot Square or the women at the shelter.

Eventually social workers Emily Brunton and Simon Beauregard arrived to help at Cabot Square.

Thankfully, a solution arrived.

Annie Arevian from the CIUSSS contacted Brunton and found a hotel where the women could stay.

The seven women and three children were driven to a testing site, and then taken to the hotel where they will remain for two weeks.

There are plans for a team to arrive Monday and thoroughly clean the entire shelter.

Nakuset is grateful for those that arrived to construct a solution.

“If I didn’t have Emily fighting for me, fighting for the Native Women’s Shelter, we would be in dire straights,” said Nakuset. “It was like a ticking time bomb… It is a common theme for all of the homeless organizations.”

Nakuset said outbreaks in the homeless population are a constant problem.

“I’m dealing with COVID at Cabot Square and COVID at the Native Women’s shelter,” she said.