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'Cannot wait to do it': the push to vaccinate Montreal's homeless

Last Updated Apr 9, 2021 at 6:33 pm EDT

MONTREAL (CityNews) – Laun Alijaj is a client at The Open Door who believes that Montreal’s homeless population should receive the COVID-19 vaccine sooner, rather than later.

“I think all of them, most of them, they cannot wait to do it,” Alijaj told CityNews. “Because this mask is not the best.”

Alijaj lost his job right before the pandemic hit in March of 2020. A few months later, he lost his apartment.

He contracted COVID-19 around Christmastime but received his first vaccine in January of this year.

“At the end, the government is going to have the last word,” he continued. “And I think they took a lot of time to make that decision to vaccinate the people.”

According to the city, there are over 3,000 people living on the streets on the island of Montreal.

Organizations serving the homeless say there may be twice as much and have taken on the task of not only getting them vaccinated not only once, but twice — something they say is crucial to protect everyone from COVID-19.

“It’s been critical to protect people who are living in shelters, people living in short-term housing because often they are in close quarters with others,” Fiona Crossling, the executive director at Accueil Bonneau said.

“Like, the general population, there could be all kinds of reasons why people aren’t getting the vaccine, but we’ve had about half to two-thirds of [homeless] people stepping up and getting it.”

James Hughes, with the Old Brewery Mission, said there had always been a big push to advocate for the homeless.

“We did a very intensive campaign to try to convince public authorities to vaccinate homeless people on a priority basis,” Hughes said.

“Not only to protect the general population because, as you say, homeless are by definition out in the streets, circulation much more than the rest of us. But because they are vulnerable to disease and because they have all types of other health challenges,” added Crossling.

The organizations say they have so been able to vaccinate approximately 1,300 homeless since the start of the campaign, which they estimate to be about a quarter of the homeless population on the island.

They are also planning a second dose rollout for May, which they admit will not be the simplest thing to achieve but are determined to do so.

“If you and I have the first dose we’ll get probably a text message or an email that says you’re due for your second shoot, and you should come at this day and this time,” Crossling explained.

“Obviously with the homeless population that’s much more difficult. So what we are planning as we did for the first dose is a mass vaccination.”

“We’ve done this before. An analogy would be the homeless street count we did in 2015 and 2018,” said Hughes.

“Big teams of people went out to count the number of homeless people that are out in the street. It took a big army of people to try to make sure we were as accurate as possible. I think we need that kind of thinking for vaccination.”