MONTREAL -- I am pleased to report that there are presently no known cases of COVID-19 in Montreal’s homeless population.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Old Brewery Mission has been managing the isolation facilities for homeless men, women and transgender people.

Our Red Zone for those who have tested positive is presently empty.

Over the past eight weeks or so, there have been one or two people isolating in our Orange Zone while waiting for test results, or in our Yellow Zone awaiting confirmation of a negative test result, but we are gratefully free of business in the Red Zone.

As Montrealers will recall, at the height of the second wave in December-January, outbreaks across the shelter community filled the Red Zone to the brim.

The Red Cross had to be called in to operate additional isolation facilities.

Subsequently, a vigorous advocacy campaign was conducted to cajole the provincial government into prioritizing homeless people in the vaccination program that had been announced.

At the time, only health care workers and seniors in long term care homes had been given priority.

The Old Brewery Mission and its partners were pleased the provincial government quickly acceded to our recommendation.

The authorities acknowledged that being homeless put individuals at heightened risk of exposure to the virus and the only viable response was to give them early access to available vaccines.

Since late January, hundreds of homeless people have received their first and even second doses of the vaccine. Public health nurses have come into many shelters to offer the service on site.

Our staff has done everything in its power to encourage the men and women using our facilities to get the shot and many have been vaccinated. The result is an empty Red Zone (at least for the time being).

However, many homeless people have not been vaccinated. There are many reasons for refusal, but the two we hear most often are fear of negative interactions with other medications they are taking and distrust of government assurances that the vaccine is truly safe and effective.

Neither of these reactions is illegitimate or unreasonable when one considers the dismal experience many of these individuals have encountered (and continue to encounter) within the Quebec healthcare system.

Shelters represent the social safety net underneath the social safety net, providing services and support to those whom public institutions have either failed to care for or forgotten altogether.

This leads me to the Legault government’s proposal to require a “vaccine passport” for non-essential services in the province.

We take no position either for nor against the proposal, but we do have two major concerns.

The first is the definition of essential versus non-essential services. Presently, the list of essential services does not include housing, whether temporary, transitional or permanent.

All of these categories should be explicitly added to the list of essential services to ensure that homeless people are not denied the right to visit a potential residence or sign a lease because they do not have the passport.

Chronically homeless people also move around a lot: to feel safe, they may go to a shelter, a Metro station, a public park, the doorway of an unused building and a bus terminal all in the same month.

Will any of these spaces be deemed non-essential and thus require a vaccine passport?

It is important to remember that homeless people already face layers of discrimination when it comes to the use of public spaces.

They receive a disproportionate number of tickets for violating opaque municipal bylaws against nuisance, loitering, vagrancy and jaywalking (tickets which they often cannot and will never be able to pay).

It is therefore very important that authorities be very clear and specific in all laws, regulations and bylaws in order to protect the rights of homeless men, women and transgender people to use these spaces.

It would be the height of irony if the vaccine passport ended up becoming a roadblock preventing people experiencing homelessness from exercising legitimate rights.