Man freezes to death steps from Montreal shelter after public health makes beds off-limits
MONTREAL -- A man froze to death overnight on Saturday just steps from the downtown Montreal shelter where he’d been keeping warm.
Now that shelter’s staff is speaking out against Quebec’s current regime of public health rules, which had forced them to kick the man out at night even when there were beds available. Montreal authorities say they had been trying to reopen the shelter at night, even if that didn't happen in time.
The man was Innu, said the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Nakuset. She first said on Twitter on Monday that he was Inuk.
The Quebec coroner's office, which is investigating the death, identified him as 51-year-old Raphael Andre.
Staff at the Open Door shelter, where Andre was a regular, said he had a meal and a shower at the Parc Ave. shelter on Saturday night, but he died later that night.
“Raphael, because he was under the influence, fell asleep in a porta-potty just a minute away from the shelter,” Heather Brunet, who works at the shelter, told CTV News on Sunday.
“He froze to death in the porta-potty... when he could have been here, but instead, because of these [public health] regulations, we weren’t allowed to have clients here overnight.”
The Open Door, on Parc Ave., used to allow people inside all night, but not to sleep. In the pandemic, however, it equipped its shelter with Plexiglass barriers and 65 beds to allow people to sleep relatively safely.
But in early January, the shelter was asked by health authorities to stop allowing people to use the beds or to be in the shelter at all after 9:30, amid a COVID-19 outbreak there.
Finding beds for homeless Montrealers has gotten even more pressing in the last two weeks with the introduction of an 8 p.m. nightly curfew across the province, lasting until Feb. 8.
The city has said there are enough beds in total for the homeless. In recent months Montreal health authorities have created hundreds of new shelter beds in response to the pandemic, including two hotels converted to temporary shelters.
Whether people are actually getting to those new spaces each night is a different question. Some of the city's longstanding smaller shelters, with clientele who have been returning for many years, outfitted their spaces to accommodate people overnight in a way they hadn't previously, as the Open Door did.
But some in this smaller group were then closed entirely or overnight when they were deemed not safe enough by COVID-19 standards. It's unclear if their clientele are making use of the new beds elsewhere.
ALONE ON THE STREETS
Montreal police wouldn't answer any questions about Andre's death as the coroner is now investigating.
Staff at the Open Door said Monday that they'd heard various reports about what happened to Andre the night of his death: he may have experienced violence, in addition to the cold and his inebriation.
What was clear, said John Tessier, who works at the shelter, is that he would have been safe if the shelter had been open as usual.
"Every day last week he was the last person out of the door, oftentimes wanting to stay. If we'd have been open, he definitely would have been sleeping inside the centre overnight," said Tessier.
"When people are inside, if there's any type of distress, we're able to assist them -- there's people observing them all night and there for support," he said.
"Unfortunately, this man was forced to be outside and passed away in a public toilet, when he could have been inside in safety."
Tessier said that authorities have been making an effort to get people to the available shelter beds with special shuttle buses, but the last one leaves around 9 p.m., half an hour before the Open Door closes. And occasionally when people do arrive at the night shelters, they're told there are no more beds, he said.
"It breaks our heart to send people into the bitter-cold winter of Montreal, and after curfew, at the risk of getting tickets," Tessier said. "As we see, this is life-and-death for some people."
Nakuset said that the last few months has been adding up to a deadly combination, with shelter resources stretched thin and services cut back due to COVID-19 rules, and then the curfew.
"I was really afraid that disaster would happen before the government did something, and now that disaster has happened," she said.
"Maybe he called out for help and no one heard him because he was alone."
CITY WAS TRYING TO REOPEN SHELTER OVERNIGHT: MAYOR
Brunet said Andre's death was avoidable and that front-line shelter workers are well trained. They're asking public health authorities to let them stay open overnight.
Montreal Public Health said that, in fact, they didn't order the shelter to close in the long term overnight. A "temporary suspension of the warming station was issued on January 2," it said in a statement, amid a major outbreak at the time.
But the outbreak ended on Jan. 11, said spokesman Eric Forest.
On Jan. 12, Montreal Public Health issued a recommendation to the local homelessness services board, sharing it with the relevant health authority for downtown Montreal, "supporting a possible reopening" of the Open Door overnight if it met health guidelines, he said.
"This recommendation is currently being evaluated by the Montreal health network," Forest said.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante also said in a statement that the city was already looking at reopening the "warming station" of the Open Door overnight, days before Andre's death.
"I am terribly saddened by this death and I offer my sincere condolences to his loved ones and to his entire community," Plante said.
The city does want to make sure people can be inside the shelter at night and had already been in talks to do so "for several days," she said, "to ensure a safe place for people roaming the Milton-Parc sector at night."
Her statement didn't make clear whether the city wanted to reopen the beds or just to make the shelter accessible overnight.
The city would welcome the local health authority, the CIUSSS du Centre-Ouest-de-l'Ile-de-Montréal, "moving in this direction," she added.
HOMELESS MONTREALERS BEING VACCINATED
Montreal authorities announced last week that they would begin vaccinating 2,000 homeless people in the city, moving them up on the prioritization list. Those shots were scheduled to begin late last week and carry on through this week.
On Monday, they confirmed that a few dozen people received their first doses, while on Tuesday morning, up to 200 more will get their shots.
In order to line up recipients, shelter staff are asking people staying at one of the major hotel-shelters, near Place Emilie-Gamelin, just east of downtown, whether they want the shot.
Those who agree are given tickets that must be presented at the vaccination time in order to get the shot.
--With files from CTV's Iman Kassam